The Wolf You Feed

The Wolf You Feed

E. N. Anderson

Jan. 2018



“Son, it’s time to teach you the most important lesson about life and people.  It is that everyone has within him, or her, two wolves:  a good wolf that wants to help everyone and do what’s best for all, and a bad wolf that wants to do evil and hurt people and the world.”

“Father, that’s scary.  It really worries me.  Which wolf wins out in the end?”

“Son: the wolf you feed.”

Native American folktale


This story—perhaps more Manichaean than Native American—captures much of what I have learned in my life.  I was raised to think people are good, and that evil is merely ignorance.  The people around me gave the lie to that.  They were often quite deliberately bad.  Many, perhaps most at one time or another, hurt themselves just to hurt others.  Humanity has a sorry record.  Despite claims of moral progress, the genocidal dictator and the suicide bomber are the emblems of the late 20th and early 21st century.

Yet, obviously, many people are good, some are saintly, and almost everyone is good some of the time.  Even mass murderers and psychopaths usually have a history of decent behavior when not having a psychotic break.

Jesus said:  “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted?  It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men” (Matthew 5:13).  The salt of the earth—as opposed to sea salt—came from salt springs, and was contaminated with ordinary dirt or carbonate.  Over time, aerial moisture would leach the salt out, leaving only the residue.  Natural human goodness and sociability is subject to similar leaching.  This was, of course, Jesus’ real message.  (One wonders what Biblical literalists make of verses like this one.)

Most people are in a more or less neutral, everyday state most of the time, not thinking of acting saintly or demoniacal, but they are still torn between virtuous ideals of helping, sheltering, and caring, and vicious ideals of excluding, igoring, and hurting.  We are constantly forced to decide.

The nature and promotion of good have been addressed by every religious writer in history, as well as countless psychologists and other scientists.  Covering this literature is neither necessary nor possible in the present brief essay.  Evil is less well studied.  Outside of religious imprecations against sin, there are rather few studies, mostly by psychologists.  Of these, particularly valuable are Roy Baumeister’s Evil (1997), Aaron Beck’s Prisoners of Hate (1999), Ervin Staub’s books (1989, 2003, 2011), the Sternbergs’ The Nature of Hate (2008), and James Waller’s Becoming Evil (2002) and Confronting Evil (2016).  Simon Baron-Cohen’s Zero Degrees of Empathy (2011), Steven Bartlett’s The Pathology of Man (2005), and Kathleen Taylor’s Cruelty (2009) cover some important psychological terrain.  Zeki and Romaya (2008) review the physiology of hate.

Most of these books, as well as the literature on genocide, spice up their texts with horrific stories.  Baumeister is especially graphic.  I have absolutely no interest in transmitting such stories here.  If you need to know how bad people get, seek out those sources.


Part I.  Human Evil in Context


Starting with Genocide


This problem always occupied my mind, but it has become increasingly foregrounded since my wife and I got involved in genocide research.  She had done her doctoral research on Cambodian refugees in Thailand and the United States.  Later, visiting Cambodia together, we saw the relics of genocide and the devastation it had wrought.  We resolved to study genocide seriously.

At that time, little was known about genocide in general.  Thousands of historical sources covered Hitler’s Holocaust, and a much smaller but still important literature covered the mass murders by the Young Turks, the USSR leadership, and Mao Zedong.  Much more recent genocides, such as those in ex-Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Cambodia itself, were only beginning to be visible in scholarly sources.

Very few generalizations had come out of this work.  Rudolph Rummel had just written a book, Statistics of Democide (1998; see also Rummel 1994), arguing that genocide was the natural result of totalitarian regimes.  His oft-repeated conclusion was direct: “Power kills, and absolute power kills absolutely.”  (This was a rephrasing of Lord Acton’s famous quote about corruption.)

We quickly realized that this was not far wrong, but that it was not quite true or adequate.  Hitler was democratically elected.  So were several other notorious genociders.  They seized absolute power in the process of killing, but often not until the killing was under way.  We thus set off on a long voyage of discovery, comparing all documented genocides since 1900 to see what were the common themes.

We developed a predictive model (Anderson and Anderson 2012, 2017), and it is quite a simple one.  A would-be leader wins by developing a whole ideology based on ethnic hate, but going beyond mere hate to promise a utopian world—usually, harking back to a lost golden age and promising to recall it and improve it–if we can only eliminate “certain people.”  He normally flourishes only when difficult and uncertain economic times give people economic incentives to look for radical solutions.  John Kincaid says of American far-right politics, “right-wing movements are successful when they deploy rhetorical frames that synthesize both material and symbolic politics” (Kincaid 2016:529), and this finding summarizes a fact that seems well documented worldwide.

When he (such leaders are always male, at least so far) takes over, he quickly moves to consolidate power.  He suspends whatever democratic or institutional checks exist, and becomes a dictator, or takes arbitrary power over some aspect of the country.  Many small genocides have taken place in democracies, but, in almost all such cases, the victims were not citizens and were under de facto authoritarian rule; Native Americans in the 19th century are the prime example.

A dictator begins to consolidate his rule by killing “certain people”—whether they are Jews, bourgeoisie, political enemies, educated people, “heretics,” or any other salient group that seems opposed in some way to the idealized order.  The savagery and scope of the killing depend on the number of targeted groups, which in turn depends on the extremism of the dictator.  Hitler’s indiscriminate hatred extended from Jews to handicapped people to gays to modern artists, totaling over six million dead.  At the other extreme are mass political killings that eliminate the opposition and anyone related to it, but at least stop there, such as Agustin Pinochet’s in Chile, which killed only about 10,000 people.  These political genocides blend into the sort of mass political elimination characteristic of medieval empires.

Usually, there is then a lull in the killing.  The leader has his power.  However, eventually, unrest challenges his position.  In some cases, he is forced out by popular movements.  Dictators do sometimes fall.  Often, however, he meets the new challenge by a far greater wave of mass murder.  The challenge is often external war, as in Hitler’s case and as in Cambodia.  Sometimes it is power jockeying within the ruling party, as in the USSR and Mao’s China.  Sometimes it is civil war or revolt, as in the Indian subcontinent when successive episodes of violence accompanied the breakaway of Pakistan from India, the later breakaway of Bangladesh from Pakistan, and the failed revolution of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

This simple model—exclusionary ideology, dictatorship, consolidation, and challenge—turns out to be 100% predictive.  Of course, anything so reasonable and clear was apt to be discovered by several people, and our findings were paralleled by others, using different databases and theoretical perspectives:  Barbara Harff (2012), Hollie Nyseth Brehm (2015), James Waller (2016), Gregory Stanton (2013—only partially parallel), and others.  Nothing makes a scientist feel more secure than independent confirmation, and we had plenty of it.

We concentrated on genocide under the strictest construction of Raphael Lemkin’s definition of the term—actual mass murder of innocent citizens or subjects by their own government—as opposed to general killing of civilians in war.  Some of the best work on genocide has used that wider definition (e.g. Kiernan 2007, Shaw 2013). Our model does not work for this extended use of the term.  One would have to have a predictive model of all war—something that has so far defied scholarship, despite literally thousands of attempts.  Wars are notoriously multicausal; it usually takes several reasons to make leaders decide to go to war.  Economic gain (or plain loot), political power of the state or its leaders, land, ethnic and religious conflicts, maintaining warrior culture, and other factors all operate.  By contrast, genocide is usually rather simple: when autocratic leaders feel they are in a shaky situation, they kill.  Very often—famously with Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—they come to depend more and more on the level of hatred of their backers, and thus must whip up more and more hate to stay in power; this makes them take still more power and kill still more minorities, to provide red meat to their “base.”

The causal factors lead to genocides falling into three types: settler, consolidation, and crisis genocides.  This has been widely recognized (see Waller 2016), but needs to be made more specific.

Settler genocides occur when a large, powerful society takes over land from small or scattered groups, especially when the powerful society is technologically advanced and the smaller victim groups are less so (“Whatever happens, we have got / the Gatling gun and they have not”—Hilaire Belloc; also quoted as “Maxim gun”).  The most famous cases are the United States (Dee Brown 1971; Madley 2016), Brazil (Hemming 1978), and Australia (Pascoe 2014), but the same story can be told of societies from Russia to China to Japan, and goes far back in time.  Ancient Babylon and Assyria exterminated captives.  The Romans and medieval Europeans exterminated rebellious subject peoples and took their possessions.  The Bantu took southern Africa from the Khoi-San with attendant exterminations.   This counts as genocide only if the victims had been conquered and subjected.  Extermination of enemies who are fighting back with everything they have is normal war, not genocide.  The dividing line is obviously blurred in all cases, but extremes are easy to see; the wars with the Apaches and Comanche (Hämäläinen 2008) in the United States and Mexico in the 1870s were fair fights with no quarter given by either side, but the extermination of the Yuki in California in the mid-19th century was the systematic massacre of helpless conquered people (Madley 2016; Miller 1979).

Consolidation genocides are the commonest and often among the worst.  They occur when a rather shaky totalitarian regime based on exclusionary ideology takes over full control of a country.  They always occur in that situation, but the kill totals range widely, from rather small-scale politicides (like Marcos’ in the Philippines and Pinochet’s in Chile) to vast mass murders (like Mao’s in China).  The scale depends on the extremism of the new government, especially its exclusionary ideology.  Ideology was not a huge factor in the pragmatic (though murderous) Marcos government; at the other extreme, the indiscriminate hatreds of the Nazis, who hated almost everyone not a zealous Nazi, led to the vast massacres of the Holocaust.

Crisis genocides occur when genocide is brought about or exacerbated by war, either international or civil.  Very minor local rebellions can serve as excuses for already-planned genocides (as in Guatemala in the 1980s), or international war can vastly escalate already-ongoing genocides (as in Hitler’s Germany in the 1940s).  Sometimes consolidation and crisis occur together, as in Cambodia in the late 1970s, producing the most extreme of all genocides.

Almost all genocides fall into one of these three types.  The only exceptions are cases in which an extreme (if not downright psychopathic) dictator continues to kill whole populations without let or stay.  Stalin and Mao are the major cases in history, but other apparently demented monarchs from Caligula to Tamerlane might be mentioned.

Genocides range greatly in the numbers and percentages of people killed.  The Cambodian genocide, which killed perhaps ¼ of the total population, is unique.  Rwanda’s killed 10% in only 100 days.  Most genocides are fortunately smaller; many are “politicides,” confined to classes of political enemies of the dictator.  Mere political killings do not count as genocides, but mass political murders by people like Agustin Pinochet of Chile and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines threw far wider nets; not only actual opponents, but families of opponents, ordinary protestors, children who seemed somehow opposed to the regime, and random suspects were killed.  The scope of genocide depends on the size and range of targeted groups, which in turn depends on the extremism of the exclusionary ideology of the leaders.  Hitler targeted a huge and, at the end, almost random-looking assortment of peoples.  Pinochet narrowly targeted suspected liberals and leftists.

Genocides by our definition have become much commoner and bloodier since 1900.  Earlier genocides were largely religious persecutions (such as the Inquisition) or settler genocides.  Slavery, though not genocide by our definition, is very close to it, and requires a similar mentality: the basic idea that one whole group of humans does not deserve human consideration.  The slave trade was horribly bloody.

The Enlightenment gave rise to ideas of peace and freedom.  War was reduced, and slavery slowly but surely was outlawed everywhere.  However, the Enlightenment was founded on rapid expansion of trade, commerce, communication, and science.  As the world filled up in the 20th century, problems of overpopulation, pressure on resources, and competition for goods became more salient.  Leaders by this time tended to be old and not battle-hardened, so they did not always deal with such problems by international war, the way almost everyone did before 1800.  Often, either during war or instead of war, they turned on sectors of their own people, waging genocide campaigns.  Wars and slaving were partially replaced by internal mass murder.  Genocide developed from religious persecution and settler colonialist practices.

Genocide, like other violence, must ultimately reduce to hatred.  The government must be able to whip up mass hatred, to get support and help in its project of mass murder.  To the extent that people are hateful and angry, they are susceptible to this persuasion.

The forms of mass killing are international war, civil war (which differs from interpolity war in causes and usual course; see Collier and Sambanis 2005), revolution and rebellion, genocide, structural violence on large scales, mass poisoning by pollution, and mass starvation through refusing to take action on agriculture, welfare, or food security.  These form something of a continuum—genocide being very close to bureaucratic neglect.

Today, a range of violent engagements are common.  International war is still with us, though current ones all grew from local civil wars.  Civil wars abound, and merge with local rebellions.  Criminal gangs dominate whole countries; the governments of Honduras and El Salvador are particularly close to their gangs.  Genocide continues, in Myanmar, Sudan, South Sudan, and several other countries.


As we got more deeply involved in genocide research, we became increasingly aware of a disturbing pattern:  in all genocides, the mass of the population is susceptible to messages of hate, and goes along with the evil leaders.  The public follows the leaders as loyally as they do in international wars or in actual defense of the nation.  The leaders are power-hungry and hateful individuals, but their followers are not; yet their followers do appalling things on command.  Detailed interviewing over time in Germany, China, the USSR, Rwanda, and other states showed that people were swept away by the rhetoric, and then strengthened in murderous resolve by the fact that everyone else was involved in the killing.  Most people simply did what they were told, or what their neighbors were doing.  They often took a sort of pleasure or satisfaction in doing it, but often found it simply a job that had to be done.

This mass conformity is very extensively documented.  (Particularly good recent reviews of it are found in Staub 2011, Tatz and Higgins 2016, and Waller 2016.)

We also found that the same is true in criminal gangs everywhere, slave procurement, police work in less lawful parts of the world, and indeed every situation where ordinary people get caught up in violence.  They almost always conform.

In fact, virtually anyone can be converted, rather easily, into a monster who will torture, rape, and murder his or her neighbors and even family members for reasons that no rational person could possibly accept after serious consideration.  Religious wars over heresies are somewhat of a limiting case.  In such conflicts as the Albigensian Crusade, the 13th-century genocide that gave rise to the infamous line “kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out,” probably not one in a thousand participants could explain the differences between Catholic and Albigensian Christianity (see Anderson and Anderson 2012).  Yet the murders of neighbors and friends went on for decades.

Such phenomena raise the question of how and why normal, peaceable human beings can so easily flip into genocidal states.  Many of the most horrible genocides were committed in countries long known for the tranquility, peacefulness, cooperativeness, and even tolerance of their citizenry.  Cambodia was a particularly clear example.  Other genocidal countries, however, had a long and bloody history of independence and conflict.  No pattern emerged from this line of enquiry.

In most genocides, those who resisted and worked to save victims were astonishingly few.  Tatz and Higgins (2016) have recently collected the data from the Holocaust and other genocides, and find that even when there was no penalty for refusing, ordinary people went along with mass murder.  This was as true in the United States and Australia in the 19th century as in Hitler’s Gemany and Rwanda under the Interahamwe.  It is sobering for modern Americans to read how otherwise normal, reasonably decent, “Christian” Americans could perform the most unspeakable and unthinkable acts on Native Americans—often neighbors and (former) friends—without a second thought (see e.g. Madley 2016).

Moreover, genocide always includes far more than mere killing.  Victims are routinely tortured.  Women and girls are almost always raped.  People are burned or buried alive.  Ordinary people are as prone to do all this as the leaders themselves.  Similar findings are common in studies of warfare and criminal gangs.  Ordinary people caught up in even the most mundane street gangs soon learn to commit unspeakable acts without second thoughts.


Anyone, Anytime, Can Turn Evil


Following discovery of this among Nazi survivors, psychologists experimented with students, seeing how easy it was to make them be cruel to other students.  Stanley Schachter’s famous experiments with faked electric shocks, Philip Zimbardo’s with students acting as jailers and prisoners, and many subsequent experiments showed—to the horror of psychologists and the reading public—that it was very easy indeed.  Zimbardo’s experiment had to be stopped within a week, because the students took their roles far too seriously.  This led to major reforms of experimental ethics, as well as to much soul-searching (Zimbardo 2008).

All of us have encountered a great deal of everyday prejudice, bigotry, and open hatred of people for being what they are (as opposed to what they may have done).  This too has been studied.  (Allport 1954 reviewed early sources; since then a huge literature has accumulated; see below).

Robert Louis Stevenson’s story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is uncomfortably compelling; we sense, somehow, that we could all go there.  Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil” (Arendt 1963) is also compelling.  Indeed, evil is banal, for the very good reason that it is usually done by the kid next door, or his equivalent.

At the slave museum in Zanzibar, built on the old slave quarters there, one can see the hellholes were slaves were confined, read their stories, and see many excellent exhibits with contemporary accounts, drawings, and even photographs.  The most disquieting, and the most pervasive, message is that the slave trade was an ordinary business, like selling bananas.  Hundreds of people routinely raped, murdered, tortured, brutalized, and oppressed their fellow humans, for eight hours a day (or more), simply as a regular job.  These slavers no doubt felt like any other workers—bored, annoyed by trivial problems, angry at the boss every so often, but totally indifferent to the subjects of their effort.  They were not people who were singled out for being violent, or psychopathic, or intolerant; they were simply locals who happened to be available.  Anyone could do it.

It is at least as hard to imagine the mind-sets of people who worked in the slave trade, day after day, for a whole working lifetime, as to imagine the mind-sets of genociders.  Today, most people in developed countries are repelled by all but the gentlest treatment of farm animals.  I remember when people treated animals worse than they do today, but even in my rural youth, animals were never treated as badly as even the most fortunate slaves were treated in Zanzibar, Byzantium, the American South, and other places where slavery occurred.  The animals needed to stay healthy to turn a profit.  By contrast, the whole goal of slaving is to reduce humans to helpless, terrified victims by intimidation and brutalization.  Their health was a secondary concern at best.  It was easier to get new slaves than to deal with well-treated ones.

Many, possibly half, of Americans believe slavery was happy blacks playing banjos and occasionally picking a bit of cotton under the benevolent eyes of the plantation owners.  The rest usually think of slavery as the work of a few utterly evil men, like Simon Legree of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  The fact is that slavery involved thousands of men (and sometimes women) brutalizing other men and women, simply as a regular job, carried out with varying degrees of racist hate but with little thought about the whole issue.  In America the brutalizers were white and the victims black, but in most of history—and today in countries like Thailand and Ukraine—the slaves were the same race and very often the same culture and society as their oppressors.  Roy Baumeister, in his book Evil, comments on how repugnant most people find evil acts, and how quickly they get used to them and see them as routine; there is no evidence that slavers found even the initial phases of their work particularly unpleasant.  They put in their eight hours (or more) of rape, torture, and murder with a “just doing a job” mentality.

John Stedman wrote a classic 18th-century account of the horrors of slavery in Surinam (Stedman 1988 [1790]).  Stedman was a mercenary in the service of the plantation owners, so at first he was biased in favor of slavery and against slaves; his horror at what he saw convinced him that slavery was an evil practice.  He reports a great deal of real hatred by slaveowners of their slaves, and a great deal of torture simply for torture’s sake.  His writings became foundational to the antislavery effort, first in England, then worldwide.

One also recalls John Newton’s conversion, at about the same time, from slaving captain to extremely repentant Christian; after years of depression, he felt divine forgiveness, and wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace,” which, somewhat ironically, became a favorite of African-American churches.  As with resisters of pressure to commit genocide, repenters of slaving are rare in the archives.

Admittedly, the holding pens of Zanzibar and the paranoid plantations of Surinam are extreme cases.  Slavery, especially in traditional societies (from the Northwest Coast of North America to pre-slave-trade Africa), was less murderous and torture-filled.  But it was never other than cruel and oppressive.  All records from all societies speak of rape, terrorizing, and brutalizing.  Yet, no one in history—not Buddha, not Jesus—opposed slavery as an institution, until the Quakers in the 18th century concluded it was against God’s law.  The tide then turned with striking speed.

            Slavery continues today, especially sex slavery, with all the attendant horrors, carried out in the same spirit of “all in a day’s work,” by thugs and pimps from Thailand to Hollywood.  As always, there is no evidence that these people are especially evil to begin with.  They drift into the life and do what they believe is necessary.

Roy Baumeister, in his book Evil (1997), documents at length the unexceptional nature of people who do evil things.  He also documents the degree to which they self-justify: they think they are doing the right thing, or the reasonable thing, or the expedient thing, they rationalize to avoid guilt, and they use carefully disinfected language.  Most commonliy of all, they think or say that they are only doing what everyone does.  In genocides and slave camps, they are right; everyone in their situation is indeed doing it.

Baumeister demolishes the old idea that evil people are those with low self-esteem; it appears that the worst problem in that area is with people who have “high but unstable self-esteem” (Baumeister 1997:149; his emphasis).  They are often bullies, because they think highly of themselves but are insecure enough to be wounded by challenges.  He also debunks the idea that evil people dehumanize their victims.  They most often see their victims as fully human—just not deserving of normal consideration.  (In recognition of this, Castano suggests the term “infrahumanization.”)  He runs through the standard explanations for violence (“greed, lust, ambition…” on p. 99—the classic land, loot, women, and power—as well as sadism and psychopathy), only to show how inadequate they are; crime rarely pays much, lust turned evil does not feel particularly good, and ambition served by evil rarely ends well.  He sees “egotism and revenge” as more important (Baumeister 1997:128-168) as more important.  People committing evil are often showing off their ability to maintain their power.  “Threatened egotism” (Baumeister 1997:377; Baumeister et al. 1996) is the deadliest of the factors he liists.

This, however, results from two things: basic predisposing factors of personality (threatened egotism, sadism, psychopathy) and immediate triggering factors (greed, idealism).  Those triggers do not cause evil in people who do not have the predispositions.  We are left no closer to an explanation of why ordinary people without the basic personality factors become genocidal or become slavers.

Baumeister also points out that much evil is done in the name of good—of idealism.  He is, in my opinion, far too quick to believe that murderous “good-doers” (like the Khmer Rouge) believe what they say.  My rather wide experience of those who talk good but do evil is that they are simply hypocrites.  At best, their willingness to do real harm in the name of imaginary good is hardly a recommendation for their morals.  Suicide bombers claim to be fighting for the right, but killing innocent strangers out of pure hate is right only in a very strange values system; it is within my definition of evil, and not within my definition of idealism.

The trouble with greed and idealism as reasons for evil is that a sensible person, even if greedy or idealistic, would see that it is better to work with others for mutual benefit, or at least to compete fairly.  Greed to the point of ripping others off, or crushing them, is not profitable in the long run.  It is normally done when society forces people into evil ways of making a living, such as slaving.  Idealism that involves nothing beyond torturing people to death hardly deserves the name of idealism, and is not an explanation for evil; it simply raises the question of why people sometimes think that torturing is idealistic, or that idealism can mean nothing but murder.  Usually, hypocrisy is suspected, not without reason.

Idealism that necessarily costs lives but really is for the greater good, like the fight against fascism in WWII, can be genuine.  (Plato and Aristotle already pointed out that the “harm” a surgeon does to his patient is necessary and beneficial.)  Very different is the “idealism” of the Khmer Rouge and their ilk, who did nothing but kill.  Of course, idealism can get corrupted fast, as the French and Russian revolutions did.  It seems to me that the boundary between good and evil is the point at which a reasonable person, independently judging the situation, and outside local pressures to think a certain way, would judge that there is clearly gratuitous harm occurring.  If the harm being done is clearly beyond any justification in terms of goals, it is evil.

In short, humans are evil to a degree not remotely approached by any other animal.  They can also be good.  Acting reasonably good seems the default option for most people most of the time.  It is even difficult to make people into killers.  Not only the Nazis, but also armed forces everywhere, have always had trouble accomplishing this (Baumeister 1997:205-212 is a particularly good review).

However, even the most trivial differences in feeding eventually allow the bad wolf to take over from the good one.  The strongest desire of humans is social belonging; therefore, people feel strong needs to conform to social norms and to whatever social currents are flowing (see e.g. the studies of Kipling Williams [2007, 2011] on ostracism).  The currents are not always good ones.


Human Variation


The above speaks of “ordinary people.”  However, in everyday life, we observe a striking range of behavior.  Some few individuals seem genuinely evil; they seem almost incapable of acting without harming someone.  Many more seem saintly.  They are the ones that resist even pressures to kill during mass genocides.

I have led a relatively sheltered life, largely in academia, and have none of the experience of evil that an urban policeman or prison psychologist would have.  Still, during research in many countries all over the world, I have known, and sometimes worked with, murderers, smugglers, pirates, drug-runners, and other dubious characters.  I have not known many for very long, but they give me at least some real-world experience of evil.

Some few were clearly sociopaths or psychopaths—people who appear to have been born without a moral compass and without a way of acquiring one.  There were others who seemed moral enough most of the time but were apt to lapse into uncontrollable violence.

These are not insensitive individuals.  Unlike autistic people, who are usually well-meaning despite lack of social abilities, psychopaths often seem to have preternatural social skills.  “A person with autism spectrum disorder has little ability to assume the perspective of someone else.  Psychopaths, on the other hand, understand what others are feeling but have a profound lack of empathetic concern”; they have anomalies in neural connections in the brain (Denworth 2017:61; cf. Baskin-Sommers et al. 2016).  Serious killers may be far more troubled than ordinary psychopaths.  The one mass murderer I have known was both mentally deficient and severely disturbed.  By contrast, people I have known who killed in war were perfectly normal.  They were traumatized by the experience.

Sociopaths seem residents of a different world.  They lie without a second thought, and, even when it clearly is against their better judgment, they seem to prefer dealing treacherously and unfairly with others.  Ordinary rational self-interest simply does not work for them.  I have known several who regularly wrecked their lives by wholly gratuitous betrayal.  They simply could not empathize with others, or understand why betraying others brought outrage. One of the sociopaths I knew was a prominent politician, and—though rather notorious—he was never singled out as being worse than many colleagues.

There are also extremely aggressive individuals, sadists, and others who verge on psychopathy; most have a background of brutal abuse in childhood, by parents and peers, or of major trauma.  Some may simply be “born that way,” others appear made by environment; a harsh, hostile, critical environment worsens all.

Such people are always rare.  Most humans have a great deal of innate empathy—abilities to feel others’ emotions and sensations, understand them, and act accordingly (Denworth 2017).  Reading the literature on crime, politics, and war makes me realize that evil people are far commoner in the wide world than they are in my sheltered little world.

Yet, even so, most people are peaceable and reasonable most of the time.  We can perhaps allow 10% of humanity to be deeply evil—not always, or even usually, acting badly, but doing evil on a regular enough basis to produce serious net harm to their communities.  They can be balanced by the best 10%.  Certainly, well over 10% of my friends and acquaintances are genuinely good people—individuals who never say an unkind word, are unfailingly sensitive and considerate, give gifts and donations freely and save little for themselves, and devote their lives to careers in healing, teaching, charity, and aid.  The sad evidence of the genocide literature suggests that even such people can be corrupted, though only with difficulty.

The other 80% of us are the people within whom the two wolves constantly compete for pride of place.  Common experience suggests that there is a straight and unbroken continuum from the most evil through the bloody-minded to ordinary middling souls, and then to the 10% who are near sainthood.   One might think of a continuum from a clearly demented psychopath (like Mexico’s drug-gang leaders) to an ordinary criminal gangster, then to a schoolyard bully grown up to be a spouse abuser, then to an ordinary person who grumbles and scolds and occasionally fights but rarely harms anyone, and then onward to a basically good and honorable soul who loses her temper on frequent occasions but does no worse than that, and finally to a truly virtuous individual—say, the leader of a charitable medical group.  This continuum exists everywhere I have been, and through literature and psychological studies we can be sure it is essentially universal.  People everywhere range from very bad to very good.

Common experience also teaches that those of us in the 80% tend to weasel good and bad (thanks to Jennifer Skornik for telling me to make this clear).  We drive too much.  We eat at cafes that underpay their staff.  We take advantage of cheap deals when we know there is some dirty game on.  We weasel on public commitments.  In short, we spend too much time in between, giving little nibbles to the bad wolf while trying to serve the good one.

Thus, though almost all may be corrupted in a genocide, more usual social matters mobilize only a percentage for evil causes.  Depending on social pressures and the persuasiveness of the cause, that percentage may range from almost none (the few psychopaths and incorrigibly violent) to almost everyone (all but the most saintly).  Background factors such as economic and personal insecurity are known to influence the persuasiveness of evil messages, as all the above books agree.

People vary from best to worst along several dimensions.  The most important of these from the point of view of explaining evil are agreeableness vs. hostility, tolerance vs. hatred, peacefulness vs. violent aggression, help vs. gratuitous harm, open-minded vs. closed, and charity vs. greed.  All these are related, but not the same.  They must be unpacked.  Often, however, we observe truly good or truly evil persons who are at the best or at the worst ends on all six measures.  Genocide and other extreme mass-level evils come from hatred, so it must be considered the worst of the lot.  Greed is generally regarded in the US as the worst of sins, a belief going back to Jesus’ “greed for money is the source of all evil.”  However, selfish greed succeeds in mass politics only when it marshals support through whipping up hate.  The few rich must have the support of millions of less affluent; these can be persuaded to act and vote against their self-interest only by making them rabid with hate for minorities.  We have seen this in every genocidal campaign in history, as well as in almost all wars, and many political and religious movements.

Common experience, confirmed by studies, teaches that the very worst individuals are often power-mad or control-obsessed.  This is both a symptom of their basic disorders and a cause of their evil behavior.  They therefore are disproportionately represented in high places.  Studies show that psychopaths are much commoner in high levels of business and government than in the general population.  Conversely, good people tend to be deferential, humble, and self-effacing.  Thus, evil tends to win, in the “real world.”  The larger the organization the more dangerous this tendency becomes.  An empire or a giant firm will atttract the power-hungry, and they will often rise rapidly, since they are unencumbered by the scruples that restrain most of us.  Since people follow their leaders, history shows that people are considerably worse in aggregate than they are as individuals.

The rich generally come to control society, and the most angry, power-mad, and hostile of the rich seek disproportionate power.  They marshal hatred to get supporters.  But then they fall to the dark forces they have summoned.  These forces fall into crime, conflict, and corruption, and the state dissolves.


In summary, we can see that people deliberately go out of their way to hurt others, gratuitously, for several reasons.  Many are just doing their job, or following orders, or mindlessly conforming with a society that relegates “certain people” to low or vulnerable status.  A much smaller number are actively evil: psychopaths, sociopaths, cold callous bureaucrats, highly aggressive people, fragile defensive egos.  Desperate need to assert control is the motive for a great deal of personal violence; it is notoriously basic in domestic violence and other ingroup, interpersonal trouble.  The husband beating his wife because he fears she might stray is strikingly similar to the insecure leader exterminating suspected political enemies.  Our insight that intimate partner violence is a very good model of genocide deserves to be followed up (Anderson and Anderson 2012, 2017).  Selfish greed, overcompetitiveness, and other negative-sum game-playing is another factor, but in that case one searches for the reasons why an otherwise reasonable person might see such practices as worthwhile.  Deeper problems with fear, threat, and stress are suspected.

Most common and dangerous, though, is social hatred.  Hate is successful at unifying society, blinding people to ripoffs and corruption, getting otherwise unmotivated people to fight for their exploiters, and otherwise allowing evil people to get the mass of ordinary people on their side.  Over the centuries, the worst social hatred has tended to be nationalist or religious, but any social identification can be mobilized antagonistically.  The main gene3ralization is that the more deeply important a social identification is, the more hatred it can mobilize.  This is why religion so often leads to especially irrational and extreme violence; it is about basic issues.  We know from bitter experience that even sports team rivalries may lead to war (Anderson and Anderson 2012), but religion, family, and nationhood are much more often the pretexts.

Social hate, toxic conformity, and minimizing others are the real foods of the bad wolves.


Most communities and states have systems of checks and balances.  It is when these break down, or are deliberately dismantled, that the psychopaths and hatemongers take over, and genocide can begin.

There is thus every reason to work as hard as possible to feed the good wolves in us, and starve the bad ones.  We need to be more virtuous, self-sacrificing, and caring than we want to be, just to balance out the evil power-seekers.


Trying to cope?

Throughout history, people have had to cope with human evil.  Religion has been by far the main and most important way, over and above ordinary community solidarity.  Religion has produced countless saints, sages, holy men, holy women, teachers, and meditators, most of whom were genuinely virtuous people (though many were not, at least by modern standards).  Religion has been the carrier vehicle for most of the moral messages in human history.  But religion has, notoriously, been the excuse for many of the most horrific mass murders.  No religion has a notably better track record than any other.  Even Buddhism, which explicitly bans violence and teaches compassion to all beings, has been the excuse for countless wars over time, and for two of the worst genocides in modern history: the long-continuing campaigns to exterminate Tamils in Sri Lanka and Rohingya Muslims in Burma.  There are many other cases in history.  The Rohingya massacres should end (but have not so far ended) the stereotypes about Buddhism and Islam current in some parts of American society.

Hopeful souls have thus argued that religion is the problem, but the alternatives do not have a good track record.  Nationalism, fascism, and communism are the leading ideologies developed as alternatives.  Stalin and Mao repressed religion (all religion) with as much sadistic enthusiasm as Christians in the 17th century demonstrated in repressing heretics.

We are left, again, with the fact that humans can be good or evil.  Religion, philosophy, and nonreligious ideologies have no better track record at improving people than does ordinary community solidarity.  If anything, they have worse records.  People are similar everywhere; no religion has been able to produce a wholly virtuous community, and no society has produced a wholly evil one, though Hitler came very close to doing so in Germany.  The two wolves are always there, always competing.


Human Nature?


Speculations on human nature have taken place throughout the ages.  Most try to ignore the variation.  The classic Christian and Buddhist views are that people everywhere are basically good; evil is a corruption of their nature, caused—in Buddhist theology—by greed, anger, and lust.  Most Confucians follow the great Confucian teacher Mencius in seeing people as basically prosocial.  Many small-scale and traditional societies hold that people are basically sociable and well-meaning, but must develop themselves through spiritual discipline and cultivation.  Quakers speak of the “Inner Light.”  Modern biologists and anthropologists have found it in the social and proto-moral inclinations now known to be innate in humans.

Conversely, the commonest western-world view is probably that of Thomas Hobbes and Sigmund Freud: people are basically evil, selfish, competitive, and out for themselves.  Hobbes saw “man in his natural state” as being in a permanent condition of “warre of each against all” for resources (Hobbes 1950 [1651]).  Freud had a darker view:  Innate human nature was the Id, a realm of terrifying lust, murderous hate, and insatiable greed.  Both men thought “savages” showed “man in his natural state”; they fed on travelers’ tales rather than real descriptions, and saw “savages” as bloodthirsty, cruel, and driven by the lusts of the moment, with no thought of the future.  In fact, even without modern anthropology, they should have known from actual accounts that small-scale societies are as peaceful and orderly as our own.  Hobbes, Freud, and their countless followers assumed that society will force people to act decently, through powerful discipline.  This is impossible.  One cannot make mountain lions form social contracts, or teach crocodiles to cooperate.  An animal that is naturally individualist, each animal competing with others, cannot create a society capable of enforcing rules.  Hobbes, Freud, and others expected far too much of human rationality.  Rationality is notoriously unable to restrain emotion.  Ask any teenager, or parent of one.

The other current mistaken view of humanity is the rational self-interest view.  The briefest look at humanity instantly dispels that.  People do not act in their self-interest, and rarely act rationally (see e.g. Kahneman 2011).  This is now so well documented that it needs no further notice here.  It is a far more positive view of humanity than Hobbes’ or Freud’s, and it does not give much space to evil; evil would occur only when it really pays in material terms, which is not often.  Tyrants may often die in bed, but they often do not, and suicide bombers and other front-line fighters for the wrong are obviously not advancing their rational self-interest, except by truly perverse definitions of the term.

A more realistic, but still dubious, take on humans comes from the Zoroastrian-Manichaean tradition.  This tradition sees (correctly) that people are a mix of well-meaning, helpful, prosocial good and cruel, brutal evil.  It further holds, less verifiably, that the good comes from the immaterial “spirit” realm, evil from the flesh.  This view lies behind the extreme Puritanism of much of western society—the view that sees sex, good food, good wine, and dancing as Sins with a capital S.  Everything of the flesh tends toward corruption.  Good sex is the door to hell.  “The fiddle is the devil’s riding horse,” held the old American saying.  I was raised in a time and place when this view was widespread.  The social revolution of the 1960s cut it back sharply, but it is resurfacing today.

A deeper problem with the Manichaean view is that people are usually neither saintly nor demonic.  They are just trying to make a living and then get some rest and relaxation.  Their forays into proactive goodness or proactive evil are extensions from ordinary low-profile getting along.  Another problem is that a great deal of human good comes via those “sins.”  Good music, dancing, and sex make people happier, friendlier, and overall better to have around.  Condemning these is regularly used to distract people from the real sins: cruelty, oppression, gratuitous harm, selfish greed, hatred.

This leaves us with the Native American folktale: the two wolves, like the “good and bad angels” that folk Christianity borrowed from the Manichaeans, are symbols of the prosocial and hostile sides of humanity.


The great Greek tragedies, the best of the medieval epics, the Scottish tragic ballads, and equivalent literature around the world (including many Native American tales), reveal people in crisis situations, where they are forced to reveal their deepest selves.  In the crises when ordinary life is disrupted, individuals are forced into extreme good and evil behavior.  Many of these dramas turn on inescapable conflicts between two loyalties, often loyalty to true love versus loyalty to family.  The heroes and heroines are powerful, but have the costs of their virtues, the fatal flaws that comes with their power.  These stories may be the best ways to understand humanity and its conflicts. Great literature strips off the ordinary everyday conforming and reveals the bare human in full glory or vileness.  Greek tragedies do this.  So do Medieval epics, Scottish ballads, Chinese classical stories, and other great works.  Folk literature always contains stories that strip individuals down to bare humanity.

It is now well established that humans are innately “moral,” in the sense that they have natural predispositions to fairness, generosity, tolerance, welcoming, acceptance, sociability, friendliness, and other social goods.  (There is now a huge literature on this; see e.g. De Waal 1996; Bowles and Gintis 2011.)  Unfortunately, people reveal an equal tendency to cruelty, viciousness, nastiness, greed (here defined as hurting others by taking their goods for oneself, without compensating them), and other vices.  We are still not sure how much these are inborn tendencies—like minimal morality—and how much they are learned.  Most authorities think they are learned.  Others concentrate on the learned aspects.  However, broad capacities to fight, hate, and destroy are clearly innate in all higher animals, and humans seem to have more of these innate cruel tendencies than do other animals.


Fight, Flee, Freeze


Explaining this begins with the innate fight-flight-freeze response system found in all higher animals.  People are usually sociable, but react to threat as all large, strong animals do: by fighting back.  They are stressed not only by direct threat, but by threat to their social position, and their sense of control of their lives (Langer 1983).

The fight-flight-freeze response is wired into their nervous systems.  It arises from the limbic system in the brain.  Faced with superior strength and an escape route, an animal will flee; with no escape, it will freeze; if it is cornered and attacked, it will fight, even against superior strength.  Humans have considerably complicated the response.  Flight can be into video games and daydreams, freezing can be labeled “depression” or “laziness” by psychologists or judgmental peers, and fighting is usually verbal rather than violent.  Still, all the limbic responses are there, underlying the prefrontal plans and cultural instructions that introduce the complexity.  (Much of what follows is derived from, or at least agrees with, Beck 1999 and Staub 2011; I am sensible of Gian Caprara’s 2002 critique of Beck’s model as being too narrow and not covering a wide enough range of situations and contexts, and I have tried to expand accordingly, but I am writing an essay, not an encyclopedia, so I must remain subject to some of the same critique.)

The most basic root of aggression, then, is fear (on which see LeDoux 2015).  Any animal capable of fighting will fight when threatened or attacked, if there is no alternative.  Animals also fight for resources:  for mates above all, but also food, space, and other necessities.  This may involve fear of loss of necessary resources, but often—especially with mates—it is simply fighting to win desired goods.  Sheer discomfort—sickness, loss—can also make most animals more aggressive or fight-prone.

The human difference is that humans are compulsively social.  They live by, through, and for their social systems: families, communities, neighborhoods, networks, and—in the modern world—states.  Humans feel fear when these communities are threatened.  Even humans not at all involved in a community will often feel fear or anger over seeing it attacked.  People willingly die for their communities.  We routinely observe the heroism of soldiers sacrificing themselves in war, parents dying to save children, suicide bombers blowing up supposed enemies (Atran 2010; Bélanger et al. 2014), and even gutter punks dying for their drug gangs.

Such fighting, fleeing, and freezing are structured along social lines.   The usual human condition seems to be kind, friendly, and warm to one’s in-group, hospitable to strangers, hostile to opponent groups in one’s own society, and deeply hostile to individuals in one’s own society who seem to be a threat to one’s control. The real problem is threat to social place and position, hence partner abuse and other abuse of those that one should be protecting.

Thus, natural human tendencies to deal with fear by fighting or escaping can be mobilized by leaders who wish to commit genocide or other evils.  All they need to do is mobilize fear—whether it be fear of war, or economic problems, or change, or minority groups getting ahead, or any other stress—and convince an increasing sector of the population that this problem can be handled by removing some group.

If people learn rational or common-sense ways of coping with fear and threat, they are less likely to fall into hatred and toxic conformity.  If they do, however, they may become authoritarians.  The old myth of an “authoritarian personality” created by Freudian mechanisms (Fromm 1941) has not stood the test of time, but “authoritarian predispositions” leading to an “authoritarian dynamic” are now well attested and studied (Duckitt 1994, 2001; Stenner 2005).  They are called up or exacerbated especially by normative fear: fear of the breakdown of the social norms that give what the authoritarian mind considers necessary structure to society.  These norms typically involve norms that keep minorities and women “in their place,” and otherwise create a rigid top-down order.  Learned helplessness (Peterson et al. 1993) often leads to toxic conformity.

Authoritarian predispositions may include devotion to strongmen, hatred and fear of homosexuals and other norm-benders, love of stringent punishment for lawbreakers (especially those low on the social scale), militarism, and similar conditions.  There is, however, a great range of ideology here, from the near-anarchist violent right wing to the genteelly hierarchic older businessmen of a midwestern suburb.  It seems likely that we are dealing with several different responses to weakness in the face of threat, the common denominators being a need for a strong-man leader and a need for underlings to blame and oppress.  Authoritarianism is surprisingly common within societies and surprisingly widespread over the world (Stenner 2005).

This rests on several observations about human responses to threat and stress.  The ones already mentioned are obvious enough.  Three other important ones deserve attention:  People hate in others what they dislike in themselves (especially if they feel guilty about it); they like in others what they want for themselves; they use their strengths to make up for their deficiencies.  These are all involved in bullying and authoritarianism.  Bullying can have permanent negative effects on bullied children’s brains (Copeland et al. 2014).

The problems usually follow from cowardice and hostility, which reinforce each other.  In an isolated person, they come out as giving up, or as setting oneself against the world.  In the far commoner case of a social person, they come out in displacing aggression against the weak.  Fear forbids aggressing against actual offenders (if there are any); antagonism is displaced downward, to scapegoats.  This usually leads to bullying them.  Bullying involves belittling them: regarding them as low or worthless.  Underlings use malicious gossip to get back at powerful bosses. “I’m better than you” and “I’m worse than you” are bad enough, but the worst is “I’m worse than you, so I have to pretend I’m better, and if in power I have to bully you.”

A standard bullying routine is to insult the victim, then take any response as an “offense” and “slight” that justifies attack.  Imagined slights are quite adequate.  The genociders’ version of this is the attribution of all manner of horrific but imaginary sins to the targeted group; Hitler’s claims about the Jews are the most famous in this regard, but all genociders seem to do it.

Another very common aspect of bullying is that bullies are adulated as “strong” and “independent” by those who would love to be bullies but are too personally weak.  They become groupies, followers, toadies.  Women who are afraid to be violent themselves, but would love to be bullies, find male bullies irresistable, leading to a remark attributed to Henry Kissinger, “power is the best aphrodisiac.”  Only for a certain type of person.

Evil people whip up hatred.  They can most effectively get the least competent of the tier-just-above-bottom to hate the bottom tiers.  Failing that, they can always whip up nativistic hate of foreigners, especially immigrants.  Evil people seem always desperate for control and power.  Saints, on the other hand, are meek and deferential.  So evil wins unless the middle 70% or 80% are on board to stop it.

Most movements that end in authoritarianism and genocide start by recruiting bullies and haters, then gather momentum.  Not until they win, and succeed in turning the polity into a dictatorship or turning a local community into one defined by hate, can they recruit the vast mass of ordinary people.  However, there are cases in which many followers are genuine idealists, not bullies, and then the picture is complicated by the restraint introduced by the idealists.  Stalin in the USSR was infamous for purging his movement of these idealists, and leaving only those who were either bullies or saw repression as simply a necessary job to do.


Fear and fight lead to three overarching social vectors: ingroup versus rival group; general level of hostility; and minimizing.  The usual direct causes of evil appear to be cowardice, hostility, and minimizing.  The first two are overreaction (overemotional reaction) to fear, threat, and hurt, with structural opponentship (not just difference) seen as a threat.

The third is failure to consider people as fully human, or even failure to consider people at all.  It refers to regarding people as Kantian objects (Kant 2002): mere numbers on a spreadsheet or dirt to be bulldozed out of the way of construction projects, or, at best, underlings to be disregarded.

Such minimizing includes othering.  It can be aggressive.  It can be cold and calculating. It can be simply mindless—just not thinking of the problems of the servants or workstaff.  It usually consists of devaluing people: maintaining that they are unworthy of attention, concern, or care.  Sometimes it involves not noticing people at all.  It tends to go with callous indifference, as opposed to hostility and anger.  Anger shows at least some respect for the opponent; the opponent is worthy of being noticed and hated.  Not infrequently, the opponent is even considered superior, as when revolutionaries attack the state, or a David goes up against a Goliath.

Othering without much hostility is typical of traditional people; they know the “others” are different, but have little to do with them.  Hostility without much othering produces gangsters and aggressive loners.

The human norm seems to be occasional anger and aggression against even one’s nearest and dearest, great aggressiveness against structural-opponent groups, and indifference to the rest—the unknown multitudes out of one’s immediate ken.

Rejection and intolerance are clearly part of this complex, but very common also is the bureaucrats’ attitude that people are merely things to move around, like rocks.  One of the most chilling books I have read is The Future of Large Dams by Thayer Scudder (2005).  Scudder spent his life studying refugees from huge dam projects.  In almost every case, people displaced by big dams were simply ordered to move.  Their homes were bulldozed, their livelihoods flooded.  There were usually token “relief” efforts, but these were so trivial as to be more insulting than helpful.  Millions of refugees were left to shift for themselves, and in poorer nations that meant many of them died.  Scudder bends over backwards to be fair, which makes the stories sound even worse.  The bureaucrat perpetrators are cut from the same cloth as the cold “doing my job” attitude of many of Hitler’s executioners (see e.g. Paxton 2005, Snyder 2015).

Johan Galtung (1969) coined the term “structural violence” to describe destruction by the cold workings of the social system, ranging from the results of institutionalized bigotry to the bureaucratic displacement I am describing.  I hereby introduce the word “bureaupathy” to describe the associated attitude and mindset.  It is a mental state as sick and destructive as psychopathy and sociopathy.

One consoling lie that such people tell themselves is that we live in a just world (Lerner 1980), in which people get what they deserve.  The poor are lazy, the rich worked for their wealth.  People displaced by dams somehow deserve to be displaced.  Genociders come to believe what was often, originally, a fantastically overstated lie: the people they hate are truly evil, subhuman, the sources of all ills.

The common theme of all these matters, and of all evil, is rejection of people simply for being what they are.  They are condemned simply because they are poor, or Jewish, or female, or black-skinned, or any of the other things that give hateful people an excuse to dismiss whole categories of humanity.  The same may be said of hate and disregard for other lives—for animals and plants—but that is for another occasion (I have covered it thoroughly in several books).  Since people do not act hateful all the time, the question at hand is what triggers hatred and turns into a motive for evil action.


This leads to three rough clusters:  callousness (cold indifference, selfish greed, cold callousness, etc.); anger, variously directed; and psychopathy-sadism.  Anger is the most complex.  Anger in proportion to actual challenge, and directed toward the challenger, is perfectly normal and usually reasonable enough.  The problem is that humans—in proportion to how scared they are—exaggerate the anger and misdirect it, usually toward those immediately available and weaker than self.  Bashing weaker people or animals to take out aggressions against stronger ones is probably the commonest form of active evil.


Groups and Group Tensions


It follows from human social solidarity that people will fight, without mercy or quarter given, against any group that their community can credibly claim is a threat.  This is the simplest part of the back story of genocide.  Communities and polities throughout history, and at least some of prehistory, fought each other.  Genocide is different in that the targeted group is a part of the community doing the killing.  Genociders identify some fraction of their own citizenry as a direct and immediate threat that needs to be removed.  They then convince the rest of the citizenry that this fraction is indeed a threat, and that every member of it is threatening and must be destroyed.

This must be negotiated.  There will always be those who do not agree.  This is one reason why the great genocides are always carried out by dictators; they can silence dissent.  Usually, they simply add the dissenters to the target group, and execute them all.  Settler genocides, however, often occurred in democratic or partially democratic societies, where dissent was real, and often effective.  Settler genocides depended on convincing a large part of the citizenry to kill the Indigenous peoples, and to threaten protectors and dissidents into silence (a particularly good study of this is Madley 2016; for a full survey, see Kiernan 2007).

A final key part of the back story is that humans everywhere dislike foldbreakers—people who conspicuously resist conforming to basic social rules.  Even people who are unusually good may be disliked because being so good is “different” (Parks and Stone 2010).  Usually, this serves to maintain conformity by making cantankerous or poorly-educated people fall in line.  Very often, however, it simply makes people hate anyone conspicuously unlike the herd.  Individuals (including geniuses and artists) or groups (Jews in Christian countries, black people in white countries, and so on) are targeted.   (On discrimination, see Kteily, Bruneau, et al. 2015; Kteily, Hodson, and Bruneau 2016; Parks and Stone 2010.)

The failure of religion to change people much, noted above, projects back into history.  Despite Steven Pinker’s attempt to maintain that people have been getting less violent over time (Pinker 2011), and despite the reaction to it from those who still believe in the “noble savage,” there is no real evidence that people have changed.  Small-scale tribal groups are less violent than Pinker said, modern people are more so.  (See Fry 2013 for a major set of papers critical of Pinker.  It is clear from them and other literature that Pinker exaggerated tribal war, and conspicuously did not make full account of modern-day murder by mass hunger, local genocides, or colonialism.)  From reading a very wide variety of sources on warfare, traditional societies, and Pinker, I conclude that the burden of proof is on those who would maintain that people have changed.  Violent death rates actually recorded (as opposed to being inferred or modeled) for small-scale societies, early states, and the modern world are about comparable.

However, this broad overview hides an enormous amount of small-scale variation.  Modern regions like Scandinavia and the Low Countries have reduced violence to a minimum.  They are balanced out by the appalling genocides that have been so extremely frequent worldwide in the last 100 years.  Similarly, the peaceful San hunters and Semai farmers are balanced by violent subarctic hunters and Upper Amazon farmers (Robarchek and Robarchek 1998).  Within every major religion, there are sects that ban violence with considerable success, and others that idealize mass murder for the faith.  Christianity ranges from Quakers to southern US evangelicals; Islam ranges from Ahmadiyya and some of the Sufi orders to the Wahhabis and Taliban.  Within the United States, there are communities where violence is almost unknown, and other demographically similar ones with astronomical violence rates.  Moreover, these rates vary over time, according to often quite minor circumstances, such as change of police chief or greater availability of dangerous drugs.

It is almost maddening to realize that there is so much small-scale diversity—groups in which violence is almost unknown, and other groups of all sizes where murder and war are constant, and few people make it to middle age.  The most important conclusion is that people can create peaceful communities.  Evil is not necessary.  It can be reduced to low levels. 

Perhaps commonest are groups that are peaceful internally but constantly at war with neighbors.  These are impossible to explain from old, simplistic models of human behavior.  How could Hobbesian savages or Freudian ids differentiate so cleanly?  How could virtuous “noble savages” be so bloody to their neighbors?  The only view of humanity that allows it is one in which humans are usually living ordinary low-key lives, but can easily be motivated to support their group in conflict, and somewhat less easily motivated to be peaceful and proactively helpful.  Solidarity in the face of attack by an enemy group seems to be the human norm.  It is probably an evolved behavior, selected for by that situation occurring frequently over the millions of years (Bowles 2006, 2008).  So long as it is actual defense against an attacking enemy, it is a matter of necessity.  Evil begins when hostility is deployed, in the absence of credible serious threat, toward an individual or group that is being peaceable and reasonable.  This means that evil is hard to define; the boundary between rational defense and irrational defensiveness is hard to set, and tends to be highly subjective.  Societies need moral codes to sharpen the lines.

Excessive and misdirected hostility often occurs when people displace their anger.  The genuinely threatening group may be too strong and widespread to attack.  Then people often find a weaker, more vulnerable group to hate.  This clearly occurs in many cases of persecuting minorities.

Also, people may believe that a currently weak group is secretly powerful, or might become so, and could be a threat.  Preemptive strikes then occur.  Both this and the preceding dynamic clearly operated in the case of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews.  The Jews were a small, innocent, relatively defenseless minority.  Hitler directed against them all the anger stirred up in Germany by the loss of WWI and the Depression, and then revived and greatly extended the old image of the Jews as all-powerful and all-destroying.

A more local example is intimate partner violence.  This almost always involves a man (the stronger of the pair) beating a woman because he feels that he is somehow losing control of her (B. Anderson et al. 2004).  Very often, he feels generic anger against the world, or against stronger people in his life, and takes it out on the most vulnerable available person: wife, child, older parent.  Domestic violence is extremely close to genocide—it might even be called the individual-level equivalent.


Feeding Wolves Over the Life Track


The roots of evil have a small genetic component.  Psychopathy and aggressiveness seem to run in families.  It appears, however, that most evil is learned, as the enormous person-to-person, time-to-time, and group-to-group variation shows (most of what follows is derived from or paralleled in Beck 1999).

“Learning” may be too narrow a word, though, for environmental influences.  Trauma even generations ago can affect the brain, via epigenetics.  Trauma in the womb and during birth can affect the brain.  One common result of trauma—any trauma—that affects the brain is reduction in control over violent emotions and actions.  It does not occur in all cases, but it is not rare.  The exact location of the trauma may matter, but trauma is usually widespread enough to affect at least some relevant brain centers.  Fear is focused in the amygdala, aggression more widely in the limbic system, but interpretation of stimuli as frightening and reaction to fear by rational or irrational means are distributed over the brain, typically following neural pathways from the amygdala and other basal structures to the frontal lobes and the motor centers.  Eventually, all the brain is involved.  Any trauma can impact the fear-aggression pathways somewhere.  (The psychology of upbringing that follows is close to Beck 1999, with inputs from Bandura 1982 and others.  The best study I have found of children growing up resilient or otherwise is that of Werner and Smith [1982, 2001] on Kaua’i.)

Once the word “learning” becomes more narrowly accurate—i.e., once the baby is born and interacting with caregivers—the process of feeding the wolves truly begins.  A human baby is born helpless, dependent, and scared of disruptive things like loud noises, falling, and sudden appearance of strange persons.  The human infant is weak and fearful, and remains so until old enough to cope and to be taught how to deal with problems.  At that point, either lack of good teaching or abusive treatment will maintain the fear and defensiveness.  A human child with poor parenting has trouble coping with the world in general.  More common are situations in which the child learns to deal adequately with some things but not with others.  The child then overcompensates, by using learned coping mechanisms to deal with weakness and fear based on failure to learn other (and more appropriate) coping mechanisms.  Since humans are supremely social animals, it is fear of social rejection—of isolation, abandonment, hate, scorn—that is the truly deadly fear.  Physical fears are less important; in fact, they are easily handled by a child or adult who feels that her social group “has her back.”

This produces, for example, the uneducated but physically strong schoolyard bullies of my childhood, who beat up “smart kids” as a way of using what they had (strength) to deal with ego threats caused by what they lacked (book-learning).  The converse is the intellectual arrogance of many a physically less-than-perfect academic.  Weak fear due to failure to learn good coping mechanisms also leads to abject conformity, especially conformity to ego-reinforcing notions like the superiority of “my” group to “yours.”  White supremacists are usually those who fear or know that they have nothing else to feel supreme about.

People begin as scared babies, who then, to varying degrees and in varying areas of their lives, grow up.  Most of us partially succeed and partially fail, and that is a dangerous combination.  We are fearful and defensive because of the remaining weakness and failure, and use our strengths to defend—often to overdefend, and often to deflect our hostility downward, to those weaker than we are.

Anything that empowers the growing child to take care of her own problems, by teaching proper and effective responses, feeds the good wolf.  This means that the child must be taught what to do—preferably as the situation unfolds; backed up for doing it; and backed up further in case the response is inadequate.

Inevitably, in a learning child, the response will usually not be adequate.  This is a key moment: if the parent, peer, teacher, or elder then criticizes the child and takes over, “fixing” the situation that the child has “ruined,” the bad wolf gets a huge meal.  Nothing feeds the bad wolf better than deliberately weakening a child by telling her she can’t cope.  The resulting frustration and weakening turns into aggression eventually.  Widespread rejection follows, and rejection is the common sink of hatred, indifference, coldness, and petulance.  It is the immediate cause of much of the harm and evil in the world.

Conversely, nothing feeds the good wolf better than praising the child for doing what she could, while instructing her how to do even better next time.  Wolves feed on power: empowering and supporting the child feeds the good wolf, empowering other people at the expense of the child feeds the bad wolf.  Empowerment means, among other things, teaching coping strategies that work (Cattaneo and Chapman 2012).  To work, they must be reasonable, which random violence and other evil behaviors are not.  (Adults can be coldly and rationally evil, but that usually comes later.)

Somewhere in between is providing support without teaching proactive coping strategies.  A child who knows her parents have her back is in good shape.  But for coping methods she must rely on whatever methods are available.  She must copy or improvise.  These are rather random and unsatisfying methods, especially since copying without real instruction is not often successful.  The essential pieces of the strategy can easily be missed, or underemphasized.

In short, not teaching good coping mechanisms leads to fearfulness and stress, which in turn lead to deploying the fight-flight-freeze response too widely and generally.

In the family, or at the latest in school or playpack, the child will run into bullying.  “Big kids” and even adults will take out generalized anger on the weaker people around.  Any young, small, or emotionally less assertive person is at the mercy of anyone larger, older, and more aggressive.  Bullying is probably the most important learning context, or wolf-feeding context.  The ideal solution would be to stop the bullying, but that is probably not for this world, though reducing it as much as possible is obviously desirable.  The best real-world solution is to make the child as physically and psychologically tough as possible, by the empowerment-and-support method.  The worst solution is to let the child learn that bullying is the way the system works.  Children abused by their parents and older siblings at home typically become bullies of smaller children.  Almost as bad is blaming the child: “You must have done something to make them go after you.”

Later the child—especially if female—is exposed to sexual harassment, which is a form of bullying.  (It is not a form of romance or normal sexuality.  Men do it to dominate, control, and demonstrate power, not to be affectionate.)  The same rules apply.  Telling a girl “you dressed too provocatively” is not only preposterous, it undermines the girl’s confidence in herself and her ability to deal competently with the situation.  It implies that she should turn herself into a mouse, instead of taking assertive action.

Supportive and considerate parenting vs unsupportive and harsh parenting can be set up as a 2 x 2 table.  Supportive and considerate is ideal.  Supportive and harsh was the traditional European and frontier American way.  Unsupportive but considerate and gentle is more or less the classic “spoiling.”  Unsupportive and harsh is the abusive parenting that produces bullies and brutes. Parents should be firm but reasonable and loving, and aware of growth stages and family dynamics; authorities should have functioning bureaucracies, check and balance systems, and ways to buffer hate.

The normal order of learning a new skill is a very good one: from most simple and direct to most abstract.  Children learn to walk, talk, play musical instruments, and do homework by gradual steps, from simple and direct to abstract and complicated.  This is the way to learn civil behavior: from politeness formulas to basic considerateness (sharing etc.), then to basic principles.  The simplest virtues are carefulness, civility, mutual aid, sociability, considerateness, and generosity.  Children should be empowered and made self-confident through acting accordingly and getting praised for it.  Then they can move on to more abstract virtues. Teenage angst and misbehavior are usually cured by giving rights in proportion to responsibilities.

In teaching, exposure to real (and realistically taught) contexts (laboratories, field, great art) works; books and schoolrooms are slightly above neutral.

Failure of control scares everyone (Bandura 1982), especially loss of social control.  If children continue down this route, they become cowardly and hostile.  Most people pick up their lives and learn to cope rationally, or at least to find social support and live calm, relatively inoffensive lives.  Those who do not, or—worse—who learn to cope by bullying, violence, antagonism, and abusing power, are the evildoers.  Psychology seems to agree that such people are low in agreeableness and openness, and have shaky emotional control; most are low in empathy (Robin Bergh, pers. comm.).  They are the classic bigots, those who hate those below them on the social scale or those physically weaker.  (Those who hate upward, so to speak, have a much less specific emotional profile; they can be anyone outraged.  We need more data on all these matters; standard personality scales do not measure ordinary evil very well, though there is a good scale for assessing psychopathy.)  The authoritarian persuasion seems to be driven by such matters: a combination of social norms and an upbringing that combines condign enforcing of those social norms with treatment of the child that tends toward brutality and a lack of support or empowerment.  However, various forms of authoritarianism are widely distributed across social and family dynamics.

Finally, in a situation where control is lost, or where evil people are in control, everyone seems to regress not only into “following orders,” but into the combination of cowardice and hostility that drives brutality in the first place.

Those who must kill in genuine self-defense or defense of their families or nations are usually quite traumatized by it.  So are those ordered to kill by fascist or communist leaders (though many evil killers and genociders are perfectly happy to kill in such conditions; on such matters see Baumeister 1997; Waller 2016).  Post-traumatic stress disorder is very common among former soldiers, and more so among victims of genocide, and probably perpetrators also.  Post-traumatic stress is a risk factor for violence, but most PTSD sufferers do not become violent.

Genetics, trauma, and these types of parenting explain much of the variation in people, but most may still be the result of culture and society.

A lifetime of coping reasonably with problems is partially inoculating against bad wolves, but culture is always a problem.  Most cultures have many clauses that allow or encourage fear and hostility toward all sorts of groups.  Usually, the groups are familiar.  Very often, they are internal minorities.  Anti-Semitism, for instance, was rampant in Europe from the Middle Ages onward; Hitler needed only to take advantage of it.

Contrary to popular opinion, few groups automatically fear strangers.  My wife and I, in traveling and working all over the world, have met with warm welcomes almost everywhere.  Culture teaches, instead, hatred of one’s own minorities.  Culture also usually teaches intolerance of rulebreakers—exceptional people of all kinds, whether geniuses, deviants, handicapped persons, or original creators.  Going beyond the system is always problematic.  My sense is that well over 90% of evil behavior is due to cultural and social learning, not to the badness of the individual.  Children raised in gang or militia environments are often forced against their will to join such forces.  Children are not born racist; they learn it.  They may bring personal extremism to religion and other social ideologies, but they learn those ideologies, including any encoded hatreds.

The very simple psychodynamic scheme above predicts that the very weak and isolated child will turn escapist and quietist; the weak but socialized one will be a lifelong conformist, and therefore all too available for genocide if the leaders order it.  The strong child will grow up to escape the negative dynamic.  There are few such people, and experience suggests they too will fall in with genocide if the stakes are high.  The most dangerous child is strong in some areas, weak in others.  Unless channeled in helping directions—to use the strengths to help the weaker ones—such a person often ends by bullying and oppressing the weak.

Cultural teachings about the inferiority and badness of certain groups are most effective on people who are already aggressive and fearful.  Cultural teachings of tolerance and civility are most effective on those who are already more sociable, self-confident, and well-meaning.   Those who are not prosocial may find teachings of tolerance and civility to be red flags, rubbing in failure and guilt; the intemperate hatred by the American far right of “political correctness” is a case in point.

Status emulation guarantees that the upper classes, elders, and superiors have more effect on this than the rest of us do.  “The people strive to imitate all the actions and mannerisms of their prince.  It is thus very true that no one harms the state more than those who harm by example…. The bad habits of rulers are harmful not only to themselves but to everyone.” Petrarch (as quoted by Sarah Kyle, 2017:157.)

In sum:  People learn—from culture, society, bad parenting, bad peer groups, bad schools—that the way to deal with threats and stress is by hostility, defiance, and aggression; that the way to direct this hostility is not toward the actual threat, but toward weaker people; that certain groups are particularly deserving of being attacked; and that “different” people of all kinds also deserve attack.  If your boss insults you and you don’t dare confront him, find a nonconformist or minority person to attack.

Fear and hostility are the back story for a range of ills.  These may vary according to emotionality from bureaucratic callousness to genocidal hatred.  They may vary according to group solidarity from an isolated individual against the world (a familiar barroom figure) to the group-mind of genocidal attacks.  They may vary according to social situation from hating the rich to hating the poor.  They may vary according to economic conditions from selfish greed to looting.  A midpoint is ordinary unpleassantness, nastiness, and incivility.  Most people are unfairly hostile to certain others in their environment, often family members or close neighbors.  This small-scale daily bloody-mindedness can be used and manipulated by evil leaders, who can translate it into group hate.

People are not innately evil, nor do they automatically respond to threat with attack, but they are extremely prone to accept these messages of displaced hate.  The human animal seems predisposed to think that way.  The degree to which such messages take effect is proportional to the degree of fear, weakness, and anger that individuals have, but it is also proportional to the degree of bad training they have had.

On the other hand, people clearly have a strong innate tendency to become hateful, cruel, and violent.  It is not a mere ability that society trains into us.  The generalized cognitive abilities to make computers, drive cars, and trap fish in weirs are all innate, in that any trained human of reasonable intelligence can do them; but humans do not have any innate tendencies to carry those specific tasks.  They do not make computers unless taught, within a society with a long history of technological devleopment.  Evil is different.  Every known cultural and social group in the history of the world has had its cruel, brutal, murderous individuals, and the horrible record of wars and genocides proves that almost every human will act with unspeakable cruelty under social pressure.  As long as humans are social animals with strong fight-flight-freeze responses, the chain from defense to hostility to evil is sure to be reinvented, and to become popular wherever displaced aggression is socially tolerated.

The same can be said of callous indifference.  Almost everyone is prone to it.  If it is tolerated, it becomes common.  However, as with evil, its level differs from person to person, according to innate tendencies shaped by good or bad child-rearing.

Summing up the model: because of innate characteristics and learning in inevitably difficult and uncertain and often challenging environments, people develop varying degrees of weakness and defensiveness.  These lead to cowardice and hostility, which in turn—combined—lead to deflecting hatred and coldness downward, to anyone weaker, to anyone in one’s power, to anyone temporarily or permanently subjected.  Thus, the more frightened and defensive people will be those most prone to hate minorities, to display intimate partner violence, to commit genocide, or to displace poor people to make way for a reservoir—depending on the circumstances they find themselves in.  Being weak, they are also the ones most prone to do what superiors tell them, no matter how evil.  Combining those two things, they will be especially prone to obey superiors who tell them to exterminate minorities.

However, this is only the central or focal line of the model.  It extends to people who are merely violent (not fearful), merely fearful (not violent—they make the best heartless bureaucrats), able to hate laterally or even upward as well as downward, and so on.

Thus, evil is not inevitable, and can be prevented, but it takes over when given even a small chance, due to the human fight responses to threat and stress.  Almost any person will become evil if pressured enough, but almost any person can be kept from evil if pressured in that direction.  Culture usually provides both good and bad models and teachings.


Putting It All Together


The daily kibble of the bad wolf is frustration, resentment of trivial or imagined slights, everyday irritation, rejection, disempowerment, harassment.  This is especially true if one assumes the slights and minor rejections are due to malignant intent (Ames and Fiske 2015).  The raw red meat that gives it strength and power to take over is social hate.

Social hate is normally under control.  More moral ways of maintaining social solidarity win out.  What allows it to win is support by powerful leaders, usually those who want to conquer more resources or who lose from change.  The easiest way to unify people is to unite them against a common enemy, and the easiest enemy to unite people against is their own most salient minority group.  It is visible, weak, and easily available for persecution.  This is why the vilest tyrants preferentially go after the Jews, or Tutsi, or liberals, or heretics, or equivalent structural-opponent groups.

At present, the evil reactionary leaders are the heads of the giant multinational firms that produce and trade in oil, coal, minerals, bulk agricultural commodities, and similar raw primary-production goods.  Especially deadly are the sunsetting energy sources, oil and coal.  They were critical to the world economy until recently, so the companies and nations. that produced them gained incredible power.  Now they are obsolete.  The companies and nations in question are not going down without a fight.  Their great hope is to get government protection and subsidies.  To do this, they must control the government, not only through money (bribery, corruption, campaign donations, lobbying) but also through popular support.  The easiest way for them to get the support has been to whip up popular hatreds and lead the fight to devastate minorities and other victim populations.

The daily kibble of the good wolf is support, empowerment, caring, compassion, mutual aid, mutual responsibility, mutual respect, and mutual concern.  The raw red meat that gives it strength to win is conscious work to create and build social solidarity.  To this we now turn.




Part II.  What to Do About It?


First Steps to Policy: Evaluating What Helps


In dealing with evil, we need to attack it directly: to oppose rational truth to hatred, political lies, oppression, cruelty, abuse of power, and the summation of all these in fascism and similar political ideologies.  We need to call out such things directly, constantly, and explicitly.

Nothing helps except dealing directly with it.  When the baby throws up all over you, all you can do is clean it up.  Prayer doesn’t help, good thoughts don’t help, meditation doesn’t help.  You keep loving the baby and do what is necessary.

We must also maintain a consistent, oft-repeated ideology of unity, solidarity, mutual aid, mutual care, and tolerance.  The center and left in the United States has recently fallen back on being “the opposition”—opposing rather than promoting.  We need to borrow a leaf from the British, and have a shadow government: a Democrat group who can develop policy and unite the party around it, via shadow cabinet ministers, heads of agencies, and the rest of the government machinery.  History teaches that people must go against something to unite successfully.  We can only do that in the name of a higher, nobler, more inclusive goal.  Even Hitler knew enough to do it.  We certainly should.

I recognize the drawbacks of utilitarian calculation, but I cannot see any way to evaluate policies and politics except by net help to people and the environment versus net harm to same. Things like peace and freedom must be calculated within that shell.  There are times when peace is wrong, such as when one’s country is invaded.  There are necessary limits to freedom, such as denying people the right to bully others.  Proactive effective help is good, by definition.  If it helps, it is good, in my terms.  More help dominates less help.  Similarly, gratuitous harm is my definition of evil.  Gratuitous harm is due to resentment, hostility, and aggressiveness, but these may in turn be due to culture and to social pressures.

The usual social-conformity measures are usually helpful, keeping society together, but they can be bad: being too conformist, going along to get along, and the like.

Helping requires self-efficacy, reasonableness, self-control, self-confidence, and courage (i.e. ability to go into unknown and risky, where self-confidence fails).  Obviously, parents and schools need to do everything possible to develop these.

The usual moral touchstone, the Golden Rule, does not work well for me.  My neighbors do not take well to being treated to Brussels sprouts, Scottish murder ballads, or displays of Chinese art.  Granted that such individual preferences are probably not what was intended by the Golden Rule, where do we draw the line?  I would certainly not inflict my rather old-fashioned Christian morality on the world at large.  Conversely, I would not accept the hierarchic social morality that works in and is highly popular in Singapore and China.  We simply cannot use ourselves as measures of all things and all people.  The only reasonable touchstone is helping people.

Even that must be qualified: what helps?  Is it help in their terms, or in mine?  One hopes for easy cases—things that are recognized by almost everyone as helping, such as feeding the hungry.  Not all cases are easy.  If I were in Singapore (where I lived and worked for a while many years ago), would I work to advance its quite popular but rigid moral code (which—then at least—banned chewing gum, rock music, and Playboy), or would I work to advance freedom and liberty of conscience, according to my own view of helping?  Such cases can only be decided by what appears most helpful overall in the long run.


As Hume said, “Reason is, and must ever be, the slave of the passions” (Hume 1969 [1739-1740]:462).  Reason is a good slave.  It is the only way to get things right so that we can survive.  It is the only possible route to change and improvement.  But what matters is getting the passions right, such that it is a slave to the good ones.  It is at least as competent and hard-working a slave to evil as to good.

As we have seen, people who do major harm have the same range and tendency as the rest of us.  They are usually “following orders” or otherwise acting as society directs.  Some are unstable, out of control, and unable to handle life.  The real problem is the resentment-hostility-evil-harm cycle.  The direct opposite is just being reasonable.  A more extreme opposite would be the “universal positive regard” of the psychologists, but that is a process goal, not achievable in the real world. People work terribly hard and are good family members, most of the time, but at other times their behavior can be appalling.

From the widest point of view, it is not aggression, intolerance, and violence that are bad, it is when they are deployed and against whom.  Minimal tolerance and maximum violence is quite appropriate for someone trying to rape you or your daughter.  The problem of evil is a problem of targeting:  Innocent people are targeted, or disproportionate harm is done for minor offenses.

Life is often dominated by bad occurrences.  We must deal with them, and they inevitably involve fear and threat.  This is why empowerment is so important.  It leads to self-efficacy (Bandura 1982), which leads to self-confidence and courage, which allow but do not guarantee facing and understanding problems and working out rational methods to cope with them.  This often involves direct fighting against real enemies, so life cannot be free from harming others.  This multiplies the need for rational thought, since any irrationality can lead to harming the wrong people.

The cure for misdirected aggression and rejection is reasonableness, followed by actions that are as helping as possible.  Most religions have come up with this idea, but only certain forms of the religion feature it.  It has been termed the “Social Gospel” in Christianity.  It also characterizes reform Judaism, Ahmadiyya, the Three Teachings tradition in China, various forms of Buddhism, and other traditions.  There needs to be a God(dess) of Reasonable Common Sense.


A Bit of History


The Founding Fathers of the US managed to figure out a good program, based on two basic ideas:  we are all in this together and my rights stop where yours start.

This led to emphasizing freedom of conscience, thus of speech, religion, ideology, assembly, and voting.  It meant free enterprise, within reason.  It also meant freedom from torture, warrantless search, and other abuses of government power.  It meant equality in justice, opportunity, and law, with recourse in oppression.  It meant rule of law, not of men.

It meant presumption of innocence, protection of all, and mutual defense.

The United States failed at the beginning, in allowing slavery and in refusing citizenship to Native Americans.  It failed again in the Reconstruction by not enforcing full civil rights, and letting the carpetbaggers cream off wealth from the south.  These ills were eventually corrected, but not the lingering racism and power abuses that resulted.  These failures have led cynics to dismiss the entire American program, equality, freedom, and all.  I do not find that a helpful strategy.

The Depression was much better managed.  Fairness and, eventually, civil rights followed from bringing some degree of justice to the economy.

While the world was wide-open, when exploration and colonization were running wild, and then as long as technology was increasing wealth faster than population, freedom and Enlightenment values flourished.  Today, with closing frontiers, people are rushing to make all they can.  Failing that, they support and follow the powerful, in hopes of at least holding onto something.  The poor have given up hope of getting rich; they can only hope to cut other, weaker groups down and take what little those groups have.  This is a negative-sum game.  (Some cultures are much more prone to see the world as a zero-sum or negative-sum game than are others; Róźycka-Tran et al. 2015; Stavrova and Ehlebracht 2016.)

The steady rise of giant firms has been noted, and protested, since the 1870s, but it continues.  It has had a steadily more distorting effect on the economy and on politics.

One of the first effects of the shift from a farm-and-small-business America to an urban one dominated by giant firms was the disappearance of folk society.  This led to the decline of folk and traditional culture after 1950, and then to the dominance of popular culture and passive consumption.

This preceded political decline.  Traditional culture had kept Enlightenment values, including the Founding Fathers’ values, alive.  As traditional cultures and educational forms disappeared, and Hollywood filled the gap, American politics shifted rapidly from democratic to fascist.

What happened in politics was similar to what happened to food.  Decline of food traditions and rise of agribusiness corporations led to the rise of sugar, salt, and soybeans, with resulting heart trouble and diabetes.  Political decline led to a rise of racism, religious bigotry, intolerance, and incivility—not just in the United States, but worldwide.  Face-to-face community has been largely replaced by virtual communities.  Among the casualties are newspapers, local helpfulness, and Robert Putnam’s bowling leagues—Putnam uses their decline as a marker of the vastly wider decline of civic and civil culture in America (Putnam, Bowling Alone, 2000).

Another casualty has been traditional conservatism.  The old union of small-government advocates, hierarchic law-and-order defenders, patriots, and security advocates has disappeared.  Most of them at least had some sense of honor and honesty.  The current “conservatives” favor big government interfering continually in people’s private lives (sex, drugs, religion, media use, and more), are indifferent to hierarchies (though loving strong-men), and make covert deals with Russia, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and other countries against America’s obvious interests.  Their main concerns are using racism and religious bigotry to whip up support for the giant primary-production firms.  As to honor and honesty, I allow the record to speak.  It is a changed world.

It is interesting that the decline of cultures and their ideals came before the political decline, and before any economic effects.  Economic growth continues.  It seems that the last thing to be affected by a change in economic organization is the economy itself!

All the worst things many of us feared over the last 50 years have come together in a perfect storm: attacks on democracy, freedom, equality before the law, the environment, science, minorities, the press, the poor, the workers.  Much of this involves the triumph of popular culture over traditional and folk cultures with the values systems.  The main driver, however, has been the rise of inequality—especially the rise in power and wealth of the rich.  Nazi-like fascism has been revived, with even more focus on Big Lies than in Hitler’s Germany, and with even more fawning surrender of America to the most reactionary of the giant corporations.

The worst of that process is that it allows truly evil people, who are often motivated by extreme greed and hate, to get ahead.  When they triumph, they often end by ruling the state.  Contrary to tropes of “the 1%,” most rich people are reasonable enough.  The problem is that the few evil, sometimes downright psychopathic, rich—the Kochs, Mercers, Princes, Trumps, and their ilk—are highly motivated to seek power.  When they get it, they use it vindictively.  They do not merely increase their wealth; they attack the rest of us.

Current problems in the United States include a full-scale frontal attack on democracy: on free press, voting rights, civil rights, civility, and equal protection under the law.  Brian Klaas, in his book The Despot’s Apprentice (2017), provides a thorough account of these attacks, with many important and thought-provoking comparisons to tyrannies and despotisms around the world.  This attack is supported by the Big Lie technique, by exploiting religious and racial bigotry, by attacks on the poor, and by anti-scientific lies and misrepresentations.  Huge subsidies and special favors for giant corporations are now the rule, in a climate of corurption.  Clearly, American democracy and freedom are doomed unless Americans unite to save their best traditions (see Klaas 2017).

The few giant firms that support right-wing politics to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year now control the United States, through the Republican Party.  Measures like the tax bill—opposed by 75% of voters and only appealing to the super-rich—show this dominance clearly.

At current rates of descent into fascism, the Republican administration will crack down arund 2020, declare a state of emergency, suspend the Constitution, and begin full-scale genocide.  The Republicans, like Hitler (and possibly copying him), have engaged in indiscriminate hatred.  Trump, in campaigning and in tweets, has attacked Muslims, Mexicans, Jews, African-Americans, Native Americans, liberals, poor people, feminists, and others beyond counting.  Followers have added their voices, sometimes advocating extermination of gays (as preacher Kevin Swanson has done).  An economic downturn or fear of losing the 2020 elections could precipitate dictatorship and its inevitable result.  The centrists, liberals, and moderate-conservatives of the United States have very little time to unite and stop this.  Without unity, it is unstoppable.

The longer back story is that we have a new mode of production, that unites China, North Korea, and Venezuela with the United States despite alleged differences between “communism” and “capitalism.”

The new mode is one in which giant primary-production corporations, especially oil, coal, and agribusiness, control the economy and are either tied closely to government (by subsidies and special favors and rules as well as by bribery and corruption) or are actually a part of government.  Big oil and big coal—the reactionary energy-suppliers that should now be displaced by solar and wind power—have an especially distorting effect, because they are in such desperate need of maintaining political reaction and fighting environmental protection.  Their role is interestingly similar to that of slavery and the slave trade in past times, not only the Atlantic trade of the 18th and 19th centuries but also the Byzantine and Genoese slave trade from the Black Sea region in the Middle Ages.  All these had enormous distorting effects on politics and culture, driving reactionary and anti-Enlightenment views and policies.  The thousand-year cultural stagnation of the Byzantine Empire seems due to this.  Relying on reactionary and harmful methods of getting basic energy is culturally fatal.

Capitalism in the narrow sense (control of society by capitalists) is dead.  If “neoliberalism” ever existed, it does so no more.  (The term has been used so loosely that it has no established meaning; it once meant the extreme free-market view.)  Giant firms working through tyrannical governments are the future, or at least the foreseeable future.  Since the rapid growth of these extractive industries cannot go on much longer, a hard limit will be set within 100 years (and probably within 50), leading probably to mass starvation, hopefully to some search for solutions.

In the future, worldwide, concentration of power and wealth will go on, while resources diminish and global warming runs on apace—unless the human race sees fit to stop fighting and hating and start working for the common good.  The economy remains one of throughput, as opposed to efficiency and recycling.  It remains dominated by dinosaur firms: the companies that produce oil, coal, and other commodities that should be sunsetting.  The Enlightenment, that product of trade and commerce, is rapidly being forgotten, as primary production becomes more and more dominant in a resource-short world.  It will be replaced by negative-sum gaming: people fighting to maintain their shares of a shrinking pie, usually by trying to take from others’ pieces.


Towards a New Moral Order


Practical concerns and economic adjustments are not going to help in the short run.  Economics has followed culture and ideology in the past, and will no doubt continue to follow.  Obviously, in the future, we will have to set up a society based on sustainable use of the earth, equality of opportunity, substantial public sector, and controls on inequality, but the immediate need is to unify behind a set of principles that will stop fascism and restart progress in those directions.

The first order of business is to create a society as free as possible from bullying, and its adult forms: genocide, intimate partner violence, cold bureaucratic displacement of people, and senseless war.

The first step, since the root problem is hatred (in the broad sense—including deliberate dismissal), is to shore up civil and personal rights to provide maximal protection from abuse of minorities, women, children, and other vulnerable groups, and maximal recourse for those groups in case of injury.  Hate crimes (to say nothing of genocide) must be condignly suppressed.  That includes deliberate incitement to hate crime.

Pursuant to observations on childrearing, all authorities seem to agree that raising children with at least minimal civility, decency, and understanding is the second step.

From there, we need to reach out and create a new social morality.  This should be embedded in real communities—physical neighborhoods held together by strands of mutual aid, cowork on projects, mutual responsibility, and general neighborliness.  Virtual and dispersed communities are also valuable and need all the encouragement they can get, but there is no substitute for face-to-face contact and mutual aid.  However, this should not be expected to work by itself; all traditional small communities had their experiences of intolerance and violence.

The traditional way of convincing people to live by prosocial values has been religion, but it has a spotty record.  We need to make our current values far clearer, but we also need to combine them with emotional and personal appeals, as religions do.  This takes us back to education and the media.  It also requires some resolutions, at the political level, about what kind of society we want.  The rapid descent of the Republicans from a party of business to a party of hate has been terrifying to watch.  It is similar enough to the evolution of fascism in Europe, and communism in the USSR and China, to imply a harsh future.

The economic system needs to be opened to provide more opportunities for more people, but the old ideas of “economic determinism” do not work.  We have now seen genocide and other evils arising in every type of economic situation and every type of economic regime.  The classic modes of production are not helpful.  “Socialism” covers everything from Denmark and Norway to North Korea to Venezuela.  “Capitalism” covers everything from Germany to Equatorial Guinea.  This does not get us far.

We have, in fact, seen genocide arise in every type of system except true democracy with equality before the law and full equal rights for everyone.  And even true democracy has proved unable to get rid of war, violence, gangsterism, and everyday crime.  Obviously, we need all the laws we can have, to outlaw harming others gratuitously, but laws exist in a moral shell, and we have to work on that as well as on making the laws apply to all equally.


I believe we need a new moral order (Anderson 2010), based on keeping the good wolves fed and the bad ones starved.  Morality is about society, not individual behavior.  It exists because people are compulsively and necessarily social, and yet get offended and angry and then hateful and aggressive.  In this case, it has to be the opposite of hatred, callousness, and irrationally violent response to perceived threat.


The first rule of morality is to take all people, and ultimately all beings, as important.  As Kant said: they must be subjects of concern, not objects to be used.

This is one of the messages of epics like the Iliad, of the classic Scots ballads, and of great literature the world over.  The extreme opposite of the typical Hollywood “action movie,” in which cardboard characters are killed by dozens without concern.  The slide from traditional literature to Hollywood thrillers is clearly related to the rise in genocide and violence; the latter tracks the former (and other pop cultural forms) better than it tracks anything else.  The rise of inequality, especially the rise in power of giant multinational firms, is a much more obvious driver of indifference to people and of taking them as Kantian objects.

The second rule is:  we’re all in this together.  People are fellow travelers on a lifeboat that has limited supplies and that is easily upset by fighting.


That implies a morality of helping, caring, and stopping gratuitous harm.  Accept people as they are.  No rejection for being what they are—only for actual evil behavior.  The main pillars of that are caring, charity, and peace.  These can take us on to active help: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and the other standard social goods.  The contrast set is hatred, selfish greed, and violent aggression.  As social values, rather than individual pathologies, those are the classic defining features of the medieval state—the constantly warring small states that had to grow or die, and could grow only at the expense of neighboring states playing the same game.

Long-term, wide-flung interests should prevail above short-term, narrow ones.  In the real world, the short term must be considered, because failure to attend to immediate threats and concerns can kill before the long term is reached.  However, the world is now sacrificing more and more long-term interest to shorter and shorter benefits.  A classic case is overfishing.  At current rates of fishing, there will be no wild fish by 2050 (Worm 2016; Worm et al. 2006).  This occurs largely because of overcompetition among fishers.  Another problem is the opposite: overplanning and top-down control.  This is seen in big dams, which not only displace people but destroy fisheries.  The long-term benefits of farmland, fisheries, and stable communities are sacrificed for the short-term benefits of hydropower for urban consumers, and sometimes some flood control and water management; these are short-term because reservoirs silt up very rapidly, and become useless.

Most (say 80%) of the population must be more generous, self-sacrificing, helpful, community-oriented, and moral than they “need,” to balance out the 10-20% who are utterly evil.  Self-sacrifice needs to be a high good, so long as it does not turn into suicide bombing.


Within this moral shell, the most important thing to do is avoiding hatred and rejection of people or any other beings on the basis of prejudice: imagined “essence” that is somehow bad.  Tolerance and valuing diversity are essential.  (The costs of prejudice are substantial.  Subtly foregrounding “maleness” made Black boys do better on tests, while foregrounding “blackness” made them do worse, because of internalized stereotypes [Cohen et al. 2006].  Similar results have turned up over a wide range of stereotypes, e.g. foregrounding “Asian” vs. “women” makes Asian-American women do better or do worse, respectively, on math tests; Clark et al. 2015.)

Direct action should be to help, not harm unnecessarily; work for a living and some material comforts, but, beyond minimal personal comforts, only to share with others and help others in the world; constantly work to learn more, find more truths, and abandon more wrong views; defend, but only against real direct threats, not imagined or trivial social slights or indirect or potential enemies.  Morals thus cover social interaction, self-efficacy and self-control, learning, and public values.

All these result in ability to be socially responsible, and to carry out mutual aid, which I take to be a highly desirable end-state.  Basic to this are what I would consider the leading interpersonal moral needs:  caring, compassion, considerateness and civility, reasonableness, respect, and responsibility (4 C’s and 3 R’s).  It includes the values that create peace and unity in society: solidarity, tolerance, valuing diversity, mutual aid, and empowerment; thus, for society, peace, justice, fairness, equality, truth, and inquiry.

Learning, knowledge, and wisdom are obviously necessary, and critical, for this enterprise.  That involves keeping an open mind about new findings, but no open mind about hatred or cruelty.  It also requires self-control (including giving up the attempt to overcontrol others), patience, and courage, but above all the ability to work hard, in focused and thorough way, for the common good.  Hypocrisy and toxic conformity are banished.  Education must follow accordingly.


The Trump moral order is strong-man politics and bullying above all, then bigotry, then hatred of all learning, education, knowledge, science, and truth, then anti-environmentalism.  Strong-man politics involves wielding naked power by those who have it, and using it to crush those below.  The old idea of paternalism—the idea that the rich and powerful should help those below—has been completely replaced by strong-man politics.  Society is played as a negative-sum game.

This moral order produces hatred of weaker persons (women, kids, minorities, poor), violence, brutality, war, anti-health and anti-medical rules and laws, and fawning adulation of the rich and powerful.

The driver of all this is the combination of the dinosauric rich interests, especially oil and coal, with the desperate attempts of less educated older white males to maintain their control of society.  They have the advantage that the overwhelming majority of Congress is older white males with considerable power.  Both these blocs have vested interest in blocking or reversing change.

The counter-view is based on the theory that my rights stop where yours start.  If people recognize the need for equality before the law and equal opportunity under law, they must work from this principle above all.  Then, the clear moral order for the world is saving nature, promoting responsibility and mutual aid (with the more fortunate or strong helping those less so), promoting learning and truth, and nonviolence.

It is important to understand that both these moral views can go with economic growth, wealth accumulation, and the other things that developers currently consider “good.”  There is no reason to pick one over the other except for common human decency.  In the long run, the Trumpian view is unsustainable, because it leads to dinosaur interests pushing the system into collapse, but in the short run, we have seen the lack of any real break from Obama’s growth economy to Trump’s.  “Capitalism,” whatever it is, can be range from rather benign to utterly malignant.  The socialist alternative is equally ambiguous; Norway and Venezuela are both “socialist” in some ways, but Norway has a morality based on social decency, Venezuela has a moral order based on Trump-style dictatorial violence and bullying.

For having a decent world, and for having a future for the world, we have to make moral choices, not simply economic ones.  We must make a moral choice to help people rather than hurt them.  That involves honesty with ourselves about the ways that weakness, resentment, overreaction to trivial or imagined slights, and overreaction to trivial harms combine to feed the bad wolf and thus feed displacing resentment onto weaker people and onto the natural world. 

            Then we must work to feed the good wolves, all of them, everywhere, out in the world.  The food of good wolves is caring and consideration for all, especially as shown through empowerment by decent, supportive, respectful behavior.


Within the ultimate objective of increasing help and decreasing harm, there are many goals.

Process goals are goals that can never be fully reached, but that make the world better the closer we approach to them.  The classic example is health.  Perfect health is impossible in this flawed world.  We could always be a little better off.  But striving for better and better health is obviously worth doing.  Similarly, we will never be able to feed everyone, but the FAO’s goal of secure, healthy, nourishing, accessible food for everyone in the world is a goal worth striving for; the closer we get to it, the better off we are.  Other such goals include learning, appreciation of diversity and beauty, and cooperation.  We might even list cleaning, fixing, and maintenance.

Freedom, tolerance, and wealth all stop at moderation.  Freedom stops when my rights run up against yours; freedom to bully, intimidate, and oppress others is evil.  Tolerance must stop before it reaches tolerance for rape, murder, and theft.  One should never be intolerant of persons as such, but certainly we must be intolerant of evil acts.  We must also frequently oppose actual enemies, even though they are persons and deserve respect and fair treatment as such.  Inequality and excessive wealth are notorious social evils.


This gives us morals in pairs:  Caring vs indifference; courage vs. cowardice; peace vs. hate and hostility; proactive help vs. laziness; responsibility vs. irresponsibility; reason vs. irrationautyl; carefulness vs. carelessness; respect vs. scorn.  Courage comes before hate, though hate is the Problem, because hate comes from fear and thus courage is a prior and more basic virtue.

To feed the good wolf, we need to feed the irenic and full-person sides of human nature.  The best food for good wolf is reflecting that every being is important, and every human deserves consideration.  No one is essentially worthless or bad.  Feeding the bad wolf invoves feeding the cowardice, hatred, and indifference that are so much a part of our species.  The bad wolf is fed by holding grudges and overreacting to slights, often imagined ones.  The prime food for bad wolf is allowing oneself to be corrupted by the insidious thought that some people don’t matter.  Hostility and aggression are the real problems in cases of hatred.  One can hate and be a relatively good human being, if one hides the hatred.  This, however, never seems to work.  All haters seem to come out with evil behavior if they go on long enough.


Very few ways of feeding the good wolf have worked in the past, but those few have worked very well.

By far the best way has been guaranteeing civil and human rights, equal for all, before the law, and enforced strictly by executive and court action.  This has eroded disastrously in the United States, but grown steadily in much of western Europe.

Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela exemplify the most important: appealing to solidarity and natural human social goodness in the face of oppression.  Next most important and effective has been empowerment.  Doing scientific research to find out what improves the human condition is a strong third.  Forthrightly opposing evil is a long fourth, but still needs to be done.  Simply cheering people up is at least something.

Group hatred has traditionally been addressed by getting the groups together in positive situations, giving them common goals or working with the common goals they already have, affirming irenic and tolerant values, stressing the advantages of diversity, looking for common ground, striving to make groups as equal as possible (at least in opportunity and before the law), stoutly defending civil rights and explaining why those are beneficial to all, and other well-known methods.

All this does work, but not perfectly.  The most notorious case of failure was the heroic attempt made in Yugoslavia to get the various nationalities in that “united Slav” country to get along.  Unfortunately, it was counterproductive; the well-meaning majority tried too hard, alienated a vicious and noisy minority, and faced breakup, war, and genocide when Yugoslavia threw over communism.  “Multiculturalism” in the United States has had some similar problems; when it emphases the classic American e pluribus unum, it works, but far too often it emphasizes differences and even antagonisms without emphasizing the common ground and common goals. It often fostered the deadly mistake of seeing subcultures and ethnic communities as closed, steel-walled spheres, completely cut off from each other.  That view directly causes and fosters ethnic hatred.

Worst of all is unifying a population by uniting it against a common enemy—the hatreds are all merged into hating the enemy.  This is especially deadly if it is an internal minority that is defined as the enemy, as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao did.  That way lies genocide and social breakdown.

In sharp contrast, some traditional societies have dealt with potential religious conflicts for centuries, and managed them by a number of social rules and strategies.  The people of Gondar, an Ethiopian city that is a traditional stronghold of Christianity but has a large Muslim population, have learned to get along, and have taken ISIS in stride (partly by casting it as non-Muslim or otherwise aberrant; Dulin 2017).  Similar accommodations have worked until recently in many countries, but the breakdown of very old and long-established ones in Iraq, Syria, and China bodes ill for the future.

The standard methods of increasing happiness—gratitude, good thoughts, reaffirming values, and other mindfulnesses (Lyubomirsky 2007)—are also of some use, but never transformed a society.  The world needs cures for evil more than it needs helps to happiness.

Only uniting economic incentives, charismatic leaders, and common morality ever works to improve conditions.  We need positive and inclusive dialogue that is factual yet hopeful.  We need healing and rejuvenation.

Wayne Te Brake (2017), studying the decline of religious war in Europe, found that nation-states had to facilitate the process of getting people to live in harmony.  The bottom line was that people who were neighbors had to get along.  Where the cuius regio, eius religio rule held, the country had only one religion, and intolerance kept right on, but in areas where pluralism was established, governments finally realized they had to guarantee rights to religious minorities—ushering in the Enlightenment, by slow degrees.  It appears that government peacemaking led to philosophers and politicians coming up with ideas of religious freedom, which eventually led to ideas of liberty of conscience.  Something similar happened with civil rights in the modern United States in the 1950s and 1960s, but the results have been less satisfactory so far.  State and local governments have dragged their feet.  Still, the model is there.

Specifics include better parenting and better advice and counseling on it.  Schools need to change profoundly, to teach civility and ordinary decency and to deal with values.  Today, schools have come increasingly to drill students mindlessly in basic skills, to be assessed by endless standardized tests that kill thought and destroy creativity.  I have talked to young students who wrote essays and poems surreptitiously because the schools discouraged such behavior.  We need to go back to older ideals: the most important thing to teach is civil behavior, not STEM skills.  On the other hand, teaching students how to learn, how to do research or at least find out accurate information, is vital also.  Teaching truth is important, teaching how to tell truth from lies is even more so, but teaching students how to find out for themselves and improve their knowledge and accuracy of knowledge is most important of all.  Teaching students that hatred and unprovoked aggression are unacceptable—morally wrong and socially destructive—is obviously necessary.  Common decency and honesty would be enough to keep the good wolf fed and the bad one at bay.   Surely schools, media, and public life can teach that much.

Another specific is getting people to choose more reasonably what groups to join and what groups to prioritize.  Joining extremist political groups is the order of the day.  We need centrist groups, community organizations, aid associations, and other groups that will bring people together to help and to meet each other—groups that will be unifying rather than divisive.

In the wider society, the media have an obvious role to play in continuing this process of fighting hate and lies by promoting civility and truth.

All this requires continual learning and improving one’s knowledge, but not necessarily keeping an open mind.  The ills I am addressing in this essay—genocide and its small-scale correlates such as bullying, callousness, and domestic violence—do not deserve “open minded” assessment.  They must be stopped.







Thanks to Chris Chase-Dunn, Peter Grimes, Jennifer Skornik, and Andrea Wilson for ever-valuable comments.




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