The Wolf You Feed

The Wolf You Feed

  1. N. Anderson

gene@ucr.edu

www.krazykioti.com

 

 

Abstract

Human evil is here defined as gratuitous harm to people and other lives.  It very often comes from simply following orders or doing a job, or from “greed” (gain by predatory taking from others).  At root, however, it can ultimately be traced to irrational, overemotional responses to fear and threat.  Social hate is especially damaging, seen in genocide, bigotry, warfare, allowing people to starve or die of disease when they could have been saved, and other mass destruction.  Empowerment, rational coping with stress, and comprehensive morality based on “we’re all in this together” are the major cures.

 

 

“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 rather 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, ignoring, and hurting. They are either working for and with people, or working against people.  We are constantly forced to decide.  As Pascal Boyer (2018:33) says, “Observers form outside our species would certainly be struck by two facts about humans.  They are extraordinarily good at forming groups, and they are just as good at fighting other gorups.”

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),  Alan Fiske and Taj Rai’ Virtuous Violence (2014), 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), Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear (1997), Fiske and Rai’s Virtuous Violence (2014), and Kathleen Taylor’s Cruelty (2009) cover some important psychological terrain.  Zeki and Romaya (2008) review the physiology of hate.  Albert Bandura’s book Moral Disengagement (2016) exhaustively treats that aspect of evil.

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 find common themes.

We developed a predictive model (Anderson and Anderson 2012, 2017).  It is quite a simple one.  A would-be leader wins by developing a whole ideology based on ethnic or ideological 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 often flourishes only when difficult and uncertain economic times give people economic incentives to look for radical solutions, but many such leaders take power in good times; mobilizing antagonism is always available as an easy and straightforward way to win in politics.  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.  Oliver Hahl and collaborators (2018) have shown that “lying demagogues” succeed with disaffected voters who feel disrespected by elites and cultural brokers; lying, violating norms, openly expressing widely-held prejudices, and economic populism are a particularly successful (and deadly) combination.  Trump in the United States was only one of many leaders who triumphed in the early 21st century by using this technique.

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 functional equivalent.  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 sometimes depends 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.  The Khmer Rouge killings in Cambodia included people defined by ethnicity, education, foreign influence, and other broad variables.  The Rwandan genocide began with Tutsi, but quickly moved on to eliminate many Hutu (Nyseth Brehm 2017b).  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 another 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 (2017a), 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.”  Moreover, there are four ways to hate: hate upward (elites), down, laterally (real enemies or social rivals), or not at all.  Bad leaders, and often even relatively good ones, move more and more toward getting their followers to hate downward—to hate the weak, the powerless, the minorities.  Even those who took power by marshaling upward hate, such as the Communists, soon find it pays better to get their followers to hate downward.

A marginal sort of genocide is “cold genocide”:  Slow and not very sure elimination of an ethnic group by selective killing over a long time, coupled with every effort to destroy the group as a distinguishable entity with its own culture or ideology.  The term was coined by Kjell Anderson to describe the Indonesian pressure on West Irian (West Papua).  It has been applied to the far larger and bloodier repression of the Falun Gong movement in China since the late 1990s.  This movement, a spiritual discipline that by all accounts was utterly inoffensive, seemed dangerous to the Communist leadership, because of its size and rapid growth.  Suppression included propaganda wars, but also mass torture, imprisonment (“reeducation” in “camps”), and killing by extracting body parts for transplantation or the international black market (Cheung et al. 2018, citing a huge literature).  The Falun Gong has become the major source of hearts, livers, and other vital organs in China, a practice that may seem even more ghoulish than anything the Nazis thought of doing.  The Chinese government has now expanded its reach to include the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang.  Approximately a million have been placed in concentration camps (“vocational training centers”) and subjected to intense pressure to acculturate to Han majority norms (Byler 2018).  Children have been removed from homes and parents, and educated according to Han patterns.  Islam is attacked in particular.  The Uighurs’ sin appears to have been agitating for minority rights guaranteed by the Chinese constitution.  The Chinese government has accused them of ISIS-style terrorism because of a very few extreme individuals.  Recently, government agencies in Uighur territory have been ordering thousands of clubs, stock probes, tear gas canisters, spiked clubs, handcuffs, prison uniforms, and other instruments of suppression and torture (SBS News 2018).  This constitutes “culturocide,” the form of genocide that involves destruction of an entire culture by restriction of personal freedoms and forced removal and re-education of children—one of the forms of genocide specifically addressed by Lemkin.

Most genocides have been propagated by elites: ruling governments or powerful groups that whip up hatred to consolidate their power.  However, these groups may have started as small popular movements, like the original fascists.  Moreover, settler genocides are largely bottom-up phenomena, and so are many small-scale religious massacres and revolutionary bloodlettings like the French Terror.

However, one thing is common to all genocides and wars:  Some individual or individuals whip up hatred, and the public goes along.  Usually, the leaders are desperate for power and are not particularly restrained by morals.  The masses, however, can be almost anyone, anywhere, any time, though most sources agree that genuinely threatening and unsettled conditions make it easier for tyrants to whip up enmity.  There are on occasion mobs that spontaneously riot and destroy minority neighborhoods, but even these always turn out to have a single instigator or small group of instigators.  Mobs, genocides, and wars do not just happen, and they are not the result of blind forces.  They are invoked by individuals.  People do not spontaneously go into orgies of murder, unless some leader or leaders are profiting in important ways.

Many of these individuals fall into two types.  Most are elites, but a surprisingly large number of them are marginal—subalterns or regional-derived, educated in metropoles or big cities, and educated in contexts that are also somewhat marginal, ranging from military academies (very often) to extremist mentoring (by other radicals or lovers of violence).  The range is from Napoleon (Corsican), Stalin (Georgian), and Hitler (Austrian) to Mao (educated in Japan) and the Cambodian genocide leaders (educated in Paris but with radical mentoring).  Very many of the genociders have been military men: Napoleon the corporal, the Argentine colonels, General Rios Montt in Guatemala, Idi Amin in Uganda, and many more.  Leading in mass killing is, of course, the job of military officers.

These leaders all share a quite specific ideology of the purity and superiority of one group over the abysmal badness of another, with the further concept that all members of each group have those respective essences.  This can be broken up into 20 specific ideas, carefully extracted from an enormously extensive analysis of the rhetoric of genocide leaders in 20 of the major historic cases by Gerard Saucier and Laura Akers:  “tactics/excuses for violence, dispositionalism/essentialism, purity/cleansing language, dehumanization, dualistic/dichotomous thinking, internal enemies, crush-smash-exterminate-eliminate [language], group or national unity, racialism in some form, xenophobia/foreign influence, uncivilized or uncivilizable, attachment/entitlement to land, body or disease metaphor, revenge or retaliation language, traitor talk (treason, treachery, etc.), conspiracy, subversion, something held sacred, nationalism/ethnonationalism, threat of annihilation of our people” (Saucier and Akers 2018:88).

They add some other fairly common themes, including “placing national security above other goals,” wanting to move fast and thoroughly, and thinking “individuals must suffer for the good of the collective” (Saucier and Akers 2018:90). They find all of these present in many cases, from Hitler’s and Stalin’s rhetoric to the less widely known writings of the Serbian and WWII-Japanese leadership and the propaganda of mass murderers of Indigenous people in Australia and the United States.  One can add the Communist Chinese leadership’s invocations against Falun Gong, “rats,” “subversives,” and otherwise condemned (Cheung et al. 2018).

On the other hand, the people must be susceptible.  As Mao Zedong used to say, “a spark can ignite a prairie fire.”  Humans are easily enough turned to evil to give any credible leader a chance.  Understanding such events involves working back from the event to the direct perpetrators and their mindsets, and then on to the back stories.  The casual tendency of modern historians and other scholars to attribute causes of historical events to abstractions (“the economy,” “politics,” “culture,” “climate”) is wrong.  Marx is often blamed for it, because of vulgarization of his theory of history, but he was careful to specify that real people must lead the revolution, even if it is “inevitable” sooner or later because of economic forces.  Marx was also aware that those economic forces were themselves caused by the choices of real people.  Other thinkers from Ibn Khaldun to Max Weber have made the same general point.

Genocides fall into three types: settler, consolidation, and crisis genocides (see Waller 2016).

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.  It 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, 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).

Modern genocides fall into four categories: communist, fascist, military dictatorship, and random cases of rulers who lack ideology.  The last are usually military, since military men have an advantage in seizing power, but almost as often they are democratically elected politicians.  Sometimes an initially able ruler becomes more and more extreme (or even demented) with age.  The one common thread is that they come to power by marshaling hate.

Some genocides have direct corporate backing.  American corporations acting through the CIA established genocidal regimes in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Chile.  European colonial powers sometimes established murderous successor regimes in liberated colonies, or, conversely, set up a hopeless government that soon fell to genocidal rebels.  Former colony status is a fair predictor of genocide.  Many genocidal regimes have survived and flourished despite mass murder because states support business interests that are benefited by the regimes in question.  Cases range from early fascist Italy under Mussolini to more modern states such as Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea.  The oil industry is notorious for this, but armaments merchants are interested for obvious reasons, and one recalls “blood diamonds,” blood coltan (columbium-tantalum ore, source of conflict in DR Congo), and other commodities deeply stained.  Plantation slavery is the back story for a vast amount of murder.

On the other hand, there is no definite link between genocide and any particular economic system, organization, interest, or condition.  Claims that genocide is likely during economic downturns or is associated with deprivation do not hold up (Anderson and Anderson 2012; Nyseth Brehm 2017a, 2017b).  International war generally dominated mass bloodshed before 1945, but since then genocide has far overshadowed it, causing more deaths than all wars, murders, and crimes combined.  One suspects this has something to do with the dispensability of labor.  Kings of old could not afford to decimate their own work force.  Now, with rapid population growth and machines displacing workers, governments can deal with problems by thinning out their own people, saving the price of war.

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 usually 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 genocide killed 10% of the population—a million people—in only 100 days, a rate of killing calculated at 333.3 murders per hour, 5.5 per minute (Nyseth Brehm 2017b:5).  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 have become much commoner and bloodier since 1900.  Earlier genocides were largely religious persecutions (such as the Inquisition) or settler genocides.

Through history, genocidal states just kept killing till conquered by outsiders or popular movements.  Then they often returned to bad ways unless they underwent decisive political changes—sometimes forced on them by conquest, as with Germany and Japan after WWII.                       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.  By establishing that mind-set, it helped the progress to modern genocide.  The slave trade was notoriously 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 not only on rapid expansion of trade, commerce, communication, and science, but also on the slavery and exploitation it eventually fought.  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, as almost everyone had done before 1800.  Often, either during war or instead of war, the modern leaders 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.

 

Mass Killing in General

 

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, denial of medical care, and mass starvation through refusing to take action on agriculture, welfare, or food security (on famine as mass murder, see Howard-Hassman 2016).  Large-scale human sacrifice, once a major part of religion and kingship, has fortunately been eliminated, but sacrificing millions to the cults of guns, automobiles, and oil continues.  These form something of a continuum—genocide being very close to bureaucratic neglect.

These all have different risk factors.  International war is hard to predict and almost always multicausal.  The War of Jenkins’ Ear was not just about Jenkins’ ear.  Usually, desire to capture a neighbor’s territory and resources, a desire to support one’s own military machine and sometimes one’s armaments industry, pressure by hot-headed males hungry for glory and loot, claims of wounded national pride, and ideological differences with the enemy are all involved.  Traditional or manufactured hatreds are always conspicuous.  So are lies; “truth is the first casualty,” and George Orwell’s analyses remain unsurpassed.  War seems to have been around forever, if one counts the local raids and small wars typical of small-scale societies, but war seems to have been especially common in chiefdoms and early states.  Population growth and hierarchic institutions had run ahead of peace-keeping mechanisms.

With the state, maintenance of order slowly developed.  Even so, the incidence of violence and war varied widely within tribal and early state societies.  Just as there are violently aggressive people and saintly ones, there are bloodthirsty and pacific groups.  Particularly interesting from the point of view of wolf-feeding are profound changes over time.  Scandinavians changed from Vikings to democratic socialists  (Pinker 2011).  English changed from Shakespeare’s blood-drenched warriors to peaceable folk.  Germany changed from the most demonic country in history to leader of a peaceful Europe in only one generation.  Most dramatic was Rwanda, where gradual increase in hate and violence built up to the genocide of 1994 that killed 1/10 of the population—but then ended suddenly and was followed by amazingly peaceful, tranquil, well-regulated recovery.  The ability of people to change dramatically from war mode to peace mode, from bad wolf to good wolf, is truly astounding.  Recent studies have shown that this is heavily contingent on social pressure.  Michal Bauer and coworkers (2018) found that in an experimental setting, Slavic high school students in Slovakia were twice as likely to play hostile toward Roma in a game than toward other Slavic students—but only if someone started it.  They would all play peacefully unless someone made a hostile move, but if that happened all the Slavic students generally joined in.  It was easy to flip the group from tolerant to ethnically discriminatory.

Civil war is different: it stems from rebellion, revolution, or coup, or—very often—from breakaway movements by local regions, as in the United States’ Civil War (Collier and Sambanis 2005).  Structural violence is usually a matter of passing public costs onto those held to deserve no better, usually poor and vulnerable people (see below on big dams).  Again, ethnic and religious hate is very often involved.  The targeted victims—selected to pay the costs of industrial development, public works, crop failures, and the like—are almost always poor, and very often from minority groups.

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.

Violent, evil regimes now control about 1/6 of the world’s countries.  It is highly contingent.  In countries like Honduras and Thailand, the dice could easily have rolled the other way.  Bad leaders now are the rule, but instead of needing to charismatically lead troops, they conspire in evil circles and appeal to the worst citizens.

Evil ranges in extent; Hitler had real power, his American imitators very little.  The degree of evilness is not well correlated with its success.

 

Slavery

 

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 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.

Mistreatment of enslaved people involves minimalizing them—not denying their humanity, but denying that it matters.  They can be treated brutally because they do not count.

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 even by bad 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 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, through 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.

Slavery has cast a long shadow over America, influencing American politics profoundly to this day (Acharya et al. 2018).  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 many 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, often because of extreme (and not wholly unjustified) fear of slave rebellions, and the fear-driven belief that only brutality could prevent those.  His writings became foundational to the antislavery effort, first in England, then worldwide.  Most interesting, though, is his extremely extensive documentation (confirmed by every other early report) of the matter-of-fact, everyday, routine brutality.  It simply never occurred to most people of the time that this was monstrous.

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.

Slavery, especially in traditional societies (from the Northwest Coast of North America to pre-slave-trade Africa), was sometimes 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.  Enslavement of Europeans was basically over, outside the Turkish Empire, well before 1800.  Enslavement of Native Americans was theoretically banned in the Catholic countries, and was actually reduced to a rare and local phenomenon by 1800.  Enslavement of Africans continued well into the 19th century, being abolished between 1820 and the 1880s.

            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.  Reading reports of child sex slavery shows how low humans can sink, all the time thinking they are doing what culture and economics require.  As always, there is no evidence that most of these people are especially evil to begin with.  The child sex-slavers are often clearly psychopathic, but others simply drift into the life and do what they believe is necessary.

 

Structural Violence and “Bureaupathy”

 

Millions of deaths today come simply from the bureaucratic 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” slavers and Nazi executioners (for which see e.g. Paxton 2005, Snyder 2015).

Almost always, the displaced are poor, and often from minority groups, while the benefits go to the relatively rich: irrigation farmers, urban power-users, and the like.  Similarly, pollution is generated by giant firms producing for the affluent, but the pollution is almost always dumped on the poor and vulnerable (Anderson 2010 covers this issue in detail).  The populations sacrificed for the greater good of the giant firms are the stigmatized ones, and Erving Goffman’s classic work Stigma (1963) is highly relevant.

Related are the horrific famines invoked by governments against their own people, as described in State Food Crimes by Rhoda Howard-Hassmann (2016) and for specific, particularly horrible cases by Anne Appelbaum (2017) for Ukraine in the 1930s and Hazel Cameron (2018) for Zimbabwe in 1984.  Not only totalitarian governments, but the British in 1840s Ireland and most settler societies in their campaigns to get rid of colonized peoples, either allowed natural causes to produce famine (as in the Irish potato famine) or deliberately invoked famine as a form of state policy (as in many Communist countries, and America’s 19th century extermination of the buffalo to destroy Native Americans’ livelihood).

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 bureaucratic displacement and refusal to provide famine relief.  Robert Nixon has used the term “slow violence” for this.  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.

 

How Much Violence?

 

Several recent studies attempt to quantify deaths by violence in human societies.  Stephen Pinker (2011) famously concluded people kill much less than they used to.  This is apparently wrong (Fry 2013; Mann 2018), but small-scale societies kill at a relatively high rate.  Many small-scale farming societies, especially chiefdoms, are particularly bloody.  Human average seems to be about 1% dying by violence per year, but it varies from insane meltdowns like the 100 Years War, the fall of Ming, and the Khmer Rouge genocide to total peace.

A recent study by Dean Falk and Charles Hildebolt (2017) finds a wide range, from small-scale societies that have essentially no violent killings to those where a large percentage of deaths are violent.  Variation is much higher than among state-level societies.  In general, it appears that small-scale societies do have a somewhat higher percentage of violent deaths than large state societies, but the margin is not great (if it exists at all).  The genocides, slaving deaths, and mass murders of modern states go well beyond Pinker’s estimates (Mann 2018).  In few societies is murder and war the norm; such a society would quickly self-destruct.  In fact, there are records of societies that did so.  Something very close happened to the Waorani, but they were persuaded by missionaries to be more peaceful (Robarchek and Robarchek 1998).

Since death is forever, the consequences of murder are irreparable, while good is easily undone.  A society requires countless small good acts to make up for a terminally bad one.  Human nature must average out positive to keep societies functional.

Human tendencies to defend social position, defend the group, and defend or seize land and resources continue to keep violence at a high level in most societies.  From the books cited above, a clear pattern emerges of why people kill.  As individuals, if not killing in simple defense of self and loved ones, they kill either for gain (as a paid job or for loot) or for social control.  Most often, they kill to maintain social position: control over a spouse, “honor” in local societies, revenge on a neighbor, dominance over minority members, or control of a personal position of some kind.  Even psychopaths who kill compulsively usually wait for such opportunities.  Probably most killing is done for “defense.”  Even aggression in war becomes “preemptive strikes.”  Genocide is occasioned by paranoid fear of minorities.

Gavin de Becker’s many accounts of psychopaths and mass murderers all turn on the obsessive need of the killer to control someone—the woman he is stalking, the parents who have tortured him growing up, the owner of a valued good who has tried to protect it.

Killers in such situations either commit suicide or are fairly easily caught, but gangsters who kill randomly may not be.  In particular, many gangs in the United States and elsewhere require a new recruit to commit a murder, as a rite of passage.  Such initiates seek out homeless mentally ill individuals who will not be missed (or even identified, in many cases) and whose death will not be investigated seriously.  This murder-for-position leads to further crime.  In the United States, the killer usually is jailed eventually, but in Latin America he (or sometimes she) will often be accepted by society and escape the law.

As groups, humans kill largely to maintain the power of the group over perceived and hated rivals.  These structural opponent groups may be traditional enemies, new rivals, or ideological or ethnic opposites.  The hatreds lead to international war, religious strife, civil war (most often between regions), ideological murders and genocides, and other types of group violence.  War for land is also extremely frequent.  This led Ben Kiernan to title his great study of warfare and genocide with the old Nazi phrase Blood and Soil (2007); he saw identity and land as the two great reasons for mass killing. Nationhood and religion, both sources of a fictive or socially constructed identity, are deadly, much more so than actual blood relationship.

War for loot (portable wealth) seems largely limited to Viking raids and such, but war to acquire land and mineral resources, to help one’s national armaments industry, and to support its military, are all too common.  Still, group hatred remains the great reason for war, just as individual social control is apparently the commonest reason for murder.  Greed, even for land, is controllable; the deadly mix of social fear, social hate, and need for social control is the real “heart of darkness” within humans.

 

People Almost All Join In

 

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.)  It seems particularly common where hatreds are traditional, as with the Jews in “Christian” Europe, but it is reported everywhere.

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 (see esp. Baumeister 1997; Waller 2016).

Finally, the testimony of many anthropologists (e.g. Atran 2010, 2015), psychologists (Baumeister 1997), criminologists (De Becker 1997), and other experts all confirm that perfectly normal people can and do become terrorists and murderers in any social situation that puts a high value on such behavior as serving the group.  Scott Atran’s accounts of Islamic terrorists are particularly revealing: they are usually young persons who have lost a relative to wars against Islam or against their branch of it, or other terrible anti-Islamic or anti-their-branch events in their own small worlds.  They are not particularly violent, certainly not psychotic.  They are very often recruited through intensive influence by leaders of local terrorist organizations—leaders who rarely endanger themselves.

Otherwise, worldwide, accounts of recruits to violent gangs often speak of neighborhoods where the only alternative to membership in a violent gang is being killed by one.  Criminals who are not part of gangs are far more apt to be genuinely demented—usually psychopathic—but even there, writers like Roy Baumeister and Gavin De Becker stress the number who seem superficially normal.  For the record, the pirates, smugglers, and sometime killers I knew on Asian waterfronts in my youth were largely a perfectly normal lot; they got caught up in an ugly world and had few or no alternatives.  By contrast, the one American mass killer I have known was a deeply troubled individual, bullied and treated cruelly for his obvious mental issues till be finally snapped.

There are, in short, some people whose inner demons drive them out of control—though they can be identified and stopped (De Becker 1997).  Far more common are ordinary individuals: we normals who have within us the two wolves, waiting for food.  The relevant works are surprisingly silent on what makes one or the other wolf take over.  The old Victorian clichés—coming from bad seed or a broken home, falling in with bad company, taking to drink—are echoed to this day in one form or another.  They have much truth, and we now know more, but there is still much to learn.

 

Genocide is a particularly interesting case because ethnic genocide is a relatively new form of evil.  Huge-scale elimination of vast numbers of peaceable fellow citizens, simply because they fall in some arbitrary category, is new enough that people have not adjusted to it as a matter of ordinary life since time immemorial (as slavery was).  Conforming to genociders is, or was in the early 20th century, a new way to be bad.

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.  The same endures today, as in the persecution of Shi’a by ISIS (Hawley 2018).

Such phenomena raise the question of how and why normal, peaceable human beings can so easily flip into genocidal states.  (They often flip back into peaceful states after the genocide is stopped.)  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.  They 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 Pol Pot’s Cambodia.  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).  Colin Tatz’ harrowing summary of settler genocides in Australia reveals the same (Tatz 2018).  Nor did more moral citizens do much to restrain the killers.  The “Indian lovers” who agitated to protect Native Americans in late 19th century America were few.

Hollie Nyseth Brehm (2017b), in a particularly thorough analysis of the Rwandan genocide, found that killing was clearly top-down-directed, with a concentration around the capital and major cities and among well-educated (and thus elite) people, but also was commoner in areas with low marriage, high mobility, concentration of Tutsi, and political opposition—especially by Hutu themselves—at the grassroots.  The areas in and around the capital, Kigali, were far more deadly than areas at the northern margins of the country.  This is the opposite of the pattern seen in settler genocides, where murder was far commoner on borders where settler populations were expanding at the expense of Indigenous people.

Accounts from China’s Cultural Revolution indicate that people were swept up in mass hysteria, but were also afraid of appearing to be neutral, since lack of enthusiasm in persecuting victims led to substantial trouble, up to being made a victim oneself.  A few of the many memoirs indicate that the writers were unreconstructed Maoists, but the vast majority repented, and write agonizing stories of their internal sufferings as well as the sufferings they inflicted and endured.

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.

Older literature often described such behavior as regression to “animal” or “savage” behavior, but no other animal does anything remotely close.  Nonhuman animals rarely fight at all, and when they do it is usually mock combat or display.  Animals do fight and kill when threatened or when vying for mates or territory, but they rarely kill without those immediate motives, they rarely torture (though cats and many others will toy cruelly with prey), and they certainly do not make social decisions to starve millions of their fellows to death.  “Savages” in the old sense of the term do not exist and never have.  The small-scale societies of the world do about the same things that modern states do, but on a very much smaller scale, and they lack the technological ability to carry out the more horrible tortures or mass murders so common now.  They could not force mass starvation on their societies even if they wanted to.  Claims of greater violence among early, small-scale societies and early states, e.g. in Pinker (2011), are based on outrageous sampling bias (Fry 2013; Mann 2018).  Pinker compares the most warlike of documented small societies with the most peaceful modern ones, which does show we are capable of being better than we often are, but says nothing about what social levels are most murderous.

 

Anyone, Anytime, Can Turn Evil

 

The alternation between peace and rage is typical of animals, especially carnivores; we see it often in dogs and cats.  Chimpanzees show it too.  Humans are different in two ways.  First, many humans are always “on the fight” or “in your face,” seemingly looking for imagined slights, threats to their honor, and excuses for a fight.  This is both individual and cultural, with some cultures and subcultures teaching it as normal behavior (Baumeister 1997).  Such cultural groups always have a bloody, unsettled, poorly controlled past.  Second, humans fall into rage states not only when fighting immediate rivals for food or territory or mates, as dogs and cats do, but also over issues that do not directly concern them: war with remote enemies, malfeasance in distant countries, terrorist attacks in far-off cities, political injustices to other groups of people.  Humans specialize in outrage, antagonism, and hate, and will take any excuse.

Antagonism is the opposite pole to Agreeableness on the Agreeableness scale of the widely used Big Five personality test.  Worldwide, people range between the two extremes, and there is a substantial inherited component, though much (I believe most) of one’s level of agreeableness/antagonism is learned.  Highly antagonistic people are, of course, heavily overrepresented among doers of evil, and are very susceptible to inflammatory rhetoric (Kaufman 2018).

People, even quite antagonistic ones, are usually peaceful, and even helpful, generous, and tolerant.  Many are curmudgeons, even snappish or bigoted, but at least not violently cruel.  It takes some effort to make them do deliberate harm to those who have not harmed them.

However, it does not take much effort.  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 Milgram’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 with a mock prison, at Stanford, had to be stopped within a week, because the students took their roles too seriously (Blum 2018 criticized this experiment, but has been effectively answered by Zimbardo, 2018).  This led to major reforms of experimental ethics, as well as to much soul-searching (Zimbardo 2008).  Contrary to published accounts, Zimbardo did not initially allow the “prisoners” to leave the experimental situation, and in any case privileged white and Asian young men (as these students were) hardly provide a realistic prison situation, given America’s racist and brutal prison system (Blum 2018).  However, Zimbardo’s main finding stands: people, even the “best” young men, can turn into evildoers with astonishing ease if they are following orders.

People flip easily from a normal state—mild and peaceable—to an aroused state of anger, hatred, aggression, brutality, or rage.  There is a continuum, but phenomenologically it often feels as if we are dominated by either the good wolf or the bad one—not by an intermediate, neutral wolf.

Moreover, we have a choice.  We normally choose to be angered.  A punch in the face is hard to ignore (though some can manage it), but by far the most anger we feel is over trivial slights that can easily be ignored, or over social issues that may not concern us directly.  I am much more frequently angered by reading about injustice, murder, or war in places I have never been and involving people about whom I know nothing than I am by threats to myself.  Reading the political literature, one realizes that some people are outraged by the very existence of African-Americans somewhere, or by the fact that not everyone worships the same way.  An excellent column by Ron Rolheiser (2018) talks with some ironic detachment about the human proclivity to moral outrage.  Humans love to work themselves up into anger, or even hysteria, about perfectly trivial issues irrelevant to their own lives.  Most of us in the scholarly world know teachers who turn red in the face at such things as bad grammar in student papers.

Indeed, almost all the evil discussed in this paper is deliberately chosen because of outrage over something that does not directly or seriously concern the chooser.  The Jews were not really destroying Germany, nor were the Tutsi causing much trouble in Rwanda, nor were the victims of Mao’s purges doing anything remotely worthy of national outrage and mass murder.

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.  Gordon 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.

Peace came to Colombia after more than 50 years of conflict between the government—often via paramilitary gangs—and FARC, which began as a rebel organization but became largely a cocaine ring.  The paramilitary groups were little if any better.  Both sides accommodated to and dealt with the organized drug cartels.  Thousands of people were involved, and they committed the usual torture, rape, and murder associated with such activities.  With peace came rehabilitation.  Sara Reardon (2018) investigated the process.  She quotes one of the rehabilitation psychologists, Natalia Trujillo:  “I realized not all of them are sociopaths. I realized most of them are also victims.”  In fact, it is obvious from Reardon’s account that the vast majority were closer to victimhood than to pathology.  They were local people, some originally idealistic, swept up in a nightmare.  Many were forced to fight to save themselves and their families.  Most of the combatants have returned to ordinary life with varying degrees of success; some have been killed by revengeful farmers and others who were devastated or had loved ones murdered.  The way that ordinary people can be caught up in senseless civil war is clearly shown.  Similar stories from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and other civil wars, back to the United States’ own, show this to be typical.

 

In short, the vast majority of killing and harming in the world is done by people “just following orders.”  Especially successful are orders to kill or oppress minorities or to ignore their suffering when displaced.  Orders or requests to care for people and help them meet far more resistance.  The United States has faced continual protests and objections over its exiguous and miserable government safety nets, but no trouble finding soldiers for wars in the Middle East, and Trump had no trouble whipping many of his followers into frenzies of violence and hate.  For better or worse—usually for worse—people are easily mobilized by antagonism, but difficult to mobilize by religious teachings of love and care for fellow humans.

 

 

Part II.  Roots of Human Evil

 

The Dilemma

 

The problem facing us is that the world is far from perfect.  Wars, crimes, and genocides happen.  We have to deal with them.  We are rarely equipped with perfect ways of doing this.  Cool, rational action in the face of hostility requires both courage and knowledge of what to do.

Failing that, action is difficult.  The most available and simple option is to follow the orders of those who do know, or to conform with cultural norms that provide strategies for dealing with problems.  The next most available option is to maintain a front of hostility: to be touchy, aggressive, or downright paranoid.  Ideally, one can seek out the knowledge to cope better, but this requires effort and time.  One can also flee, hide, become a hermit, act as virtuous as possible in the hopes that virtue will prevail, or simply die.

Recognizing this choice matrix makes the victory of the bad wolf more understandable.  Facing a hostile world, people are prone to let the bad wolf roam, or to follow the orders of those who do.

 

Human Nature?

 

Speculations on human nature have taken place throughout the ages.  The classic Christian and Buddhist views are that people everywhere are basically good; evil is a corruption of their nature by bad desires.  The problem, according to Buddhist theology, is giving way to greed, anger, and lust.  The Christian tradition is similar; “love of money is the root of all evil,” according to Paul (I Timothy 10).  Most Confucians follow the great Confucian teacher Mencius in seeing people as basically prosocial, corrupted by bad or inadequate education.  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 at the expense of others.  Social behavior must be forced on them by harsh training.  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 believed 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).   The “irrational” heuristics that people use can be highly useful as shortcuts, creating mental efficiency (Gigerenzer 2007; Gigerenzer et al. 1999), but they constantly cause trouble when cool reason is needed.  Human limits to rationality are now so well documented that they need no further notice here.

The rationalist view 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.  Unfortunately, irrational evil appears much commoner in the real world.  Tyrants may often die in bed, but they often do not.  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 keeps resurfacing.   Yet, 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.

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.

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, of working with people versus working against them.

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.  It is basically a rediscovery of what Mencius knew in the 4th century BCE.)  People are naturally interested in the world and the other people in it.  More neutral are anger at real harms, and desire to satisfy basic wants, including a desire for pleasure and beauty.  Bad traits that appear universal, but possibly not inborn, include hatred of nonconformists and structural opponents, a tendency to grab desired stuff from others, a tendency to resent real or imagined slights, and above all weak fear.  Truly inborn is a strong tendency to form coalitions that act against each other and, in the end, against everyone’s best interests (Bowles 2006, 2008; Boyer 2018).  Individuals may not be locked in “warre of each against all,” but groups very often are.  People act for social security; often that comes at the expense of groups perceived as threats.  The tighter the society, the more deviance or challenge appears as threat.

At worst, these lead to cruelty, viciousness, nastiness, greed (here defined as hurting others by taking their goods for oneself, without fairly 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.

We are gifted by our mammalian heritage with the ability to love, care, fear, hate, and fight.  These we share with all higher mammals.  We are also gifted with the uniquely human ability to form complex, diverse social and cultural systems that construct care, fear, aggression, and other natural drives in ways that can amplify both good and evil out of all bounds.

 

Evolution?

 

How did humans evolve their capacity for cruelty?  The most interesting thing to observe is that most gratuitous violence, and almost all cases of otherwise perfectly ordinary and decent people carrying it out, are done in the service of the group.  It is done for loyalty and at the order of leaders.

Solidarity in the face of attack by an enemy group is a human norm.  It is probably an evolved behavior, selected for by that situation occurring frequently over the millions of years.  Samuel Bowles (2006, 2008) held that it came from the tendency of larger groups to kill out smaller ones.  Since these groups had cores of relatives, kin selection operated, and gradually wider and wider circles of kin would be solidary, as people evolved or learned the ability to demand loyalty, detect disloyal members, and punish them.  By that model, violence against outgroups would have evolved along with detection and punishment of nonreciprocity within groups.  So long as it is actual defense against an attacking enemy, group loyalty in violent confrontation is a matter of necessity.

Most groups are peaceful internally but often 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.

Recently, Mauricio González-Forero and Andy Gardner (2018) set out to test what model fit best with what we know of the evolution of the human brain, which more than tripled in size in a mere 2 million years—incredible speed for the evolution of a basic organ.  These authors needed to take into account the origin and dispersal of humans from east Africa between 150,000 and 70,000 years ago.  Their enterprise was highly speculative, involving assumptions that may be wrong, but at least they had considerable data on the genetics, dispersal rates, and behavior of the humans in question.  They conclude that conflictual models of human evolution are not supported.  Conflict is too costly.  Animals that fight all the time would not develop large brains—in fact, they probably would not survive at all.  Human conflicts are indeed costly, reducing cooperation even against the others (Aalerding et al. 2018).

Simple sociability is even less well supported.  They found that highly social animals generally have smaller brains than closely related, less social species.  Being taken care of substitutes for thinking.  They conclude that only ecology can account for it.  A positive feedback loop exists between finding more and better food and having a bigger, better brain.  More brain enables us to find, select, and prepare highly nutritious food.  We have adapted increasingly over time to seek out rich patches of good food.

Graeber and Wengrow (2018) have recently pointed out that humans probably evolved in larger and more complex groups than usually thought, and that problems of equality and conflict are endemic to such groups, which then develop ways to cope.  Such coping may be successful or may not be.

As I have pointed out (Anderson 2014), an animal that can find such patches can support a large group.  Best of all, we can talk, and thus tell the group that there is a dead mammoth behind the red hill, a patch of berries across the stream, and so on.  Language helps explain how to get, prepare, and process food.

González-Forero and Gardner have not explained how humans became so violent.  The obvious answer, avoiding the high costs of conflict, is that humans evolved to move rapidly into new habitats, displacing smaller groups they found in the way.  The resulting gains would outweigh the costs of conflict.  This has happened countless times in history; it surely happened countless times in prehistory.

People also have very poor innate controls on killing off their food supply.  Most human groups have learned how to manage sustainably, but they often overshoot, and in any case the learning was originally done the hard way, if local myths and stories are any guide.  Traditional peoples usually have tales of overhunting and then starving.  Children are told such stories with the morals clearly spelled out.  Human hatred of opponent groups and disregard for nature probably came from predatory expansion.

The nearest to a common thread in the evolution of human badness is “my group and I at the expense of others.”  Self first, group next, humanity hardly at all, though cross-cutting and nested allegiances make groupiness problematic.

 

Fight, Flee, Freeze

 

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 (Bandura 1982, 1986; Langer 1983).

The fight-flight-freeze response is wired into the 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; Gian Caprara [2002] has critiqued Beck’s model for being too narrow and not covering a wide enough range of situations and contexts, so it is somewhat expanded here.)

The most basic root of aggression 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, hunger, 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, socially constructed on the innate bases described above, 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 or society’s most fundamental beliefs. The real problem is threat to social place and position, which often leads to partner abuse and other abuse of those that one should be protecting.  Threats to social beliefs lead to savage persecution of “heretics.”  Heretics and minority religions are the victims of many of the very worst massacres.

It is also universally known that people are most easily united by being confronted with a common threat, especially a human threat—an invading army, looting gangs, or simply those “heretics.”  Leaders and would-be leaders thus tend to seek or invent enemies.

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.  Typically, people will redirect anger against the strong, or even just anger from stubbing their toes or having problems with the house, into hatred.  Scapegoating—hating weak people or groups through displacement—is the most cowardly of the defense mechanisms.  Intolerance is a close second.  Denial, rigidity, and low-level escapism are among the next few.

Doğan and collaborators (2018) have found, studying modern Ethniopian groups, that war is much less likely in egalitarian groups, because everyone is at risk and no one gets a huge chunk of the spoils.  In hierarchic societies, the leaders are less at risk (young men do the dying) and yet get disproportionate shares of the loot, as well as increased power.  So they are happy to invoke war.  The current world situation, where national leaders are not only safe from fighting but often never served in the military, is an extreme case of this.

 

Motivation and Morality

 

Alan Fiske and Taj Rai (2014) have argued that almost all violence is moral: it is justified by the moral teachings of the society in question.  They point out that violent behavior such as blood revenge, horrific initiation rites, war, raiding, human sacrifice, brutal discipline, and physical punishment have all been considered not only moral but sacred duty in literally thousands of societies around the world.  Steven Pinker (2011) reminds us that revenge killings, duels, killing of one’s own disobedient children, killing of slaves, and many other forms of mayhem were not only accepted but approved in western society—including the United States—well into the 19th century.  Disapproving of such behavior is very recent.  Antiwar sentiments are also recent, and the idea that taking over land by exterminating its occupants was universal until the mid-19th century.  Of course we remember with Plato and Aristotle that surgeons have to commit “violence” to cure, and we still accept defensive war.

Fiske and Rai see societies as displaying relational models.  These come in four kinds, which can all be combined in one society:” communal sharing: unity… authority ranking: hierarchy…equality matching: equality [Rawlsian fairness]… and market pricing: proportionality” (Fiske and Rai 2014:18-21).   There are six “constitutive phases” of moral violence: “creation [of relationshiips]… conduct, enhancement, modulation, and transformation [again of relationships]….protection; redress and rectification…termination…mourning” (sacrifices, self-mutilation, and the like as mourning rituals) (Fiske and Rai 2014:23-24).  Violence follows the models: a result of group solidarity (usually against other groups) in unity-driven societies; keeping people in their place in hierarchic ones; maintaining equity in egalitarian societies; and “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” in market-driven ones.  Complex societies can be expected to have all four types of relational models operating inside people’s heads and in the cultural spaces, and thus to have violence for all those reasons and more.

Genocide, as we have seen, is moralized as necessary to eliminate the loathesome and hated groups within society.  Aggressive war is moralized by a felt need for land and loot—Hitler’s lebensraum, American settlers’ manifest destiny.  Murder is moralized as honor killing, or revenge, or any of many dozen other motives.  Brutal punishment is moralized as necessary to keep people in line and maintain proper behavior.

Fiske and Rai deal largely with cultural groups and cultural norms.  Unusual events like genocide are not quite in the picture, though, for example, Europe’s massacres of Jews go back many centuries.  Exceptional murder and violence for gain or from psychopathy or sadism are explicitly exempted from their theory, being immoral even to the perpetrators.

The problems with this work are numerous.  First, and most obvious, there is no explanation of where such morals come from, beyond the idea that violence is seriously believed to be necessary to maintain any social order at all.  We are left wondering why honor killings, cruel initiation rites, and the like are found in some places and not others.  (As for the rites:  John and Beatrice Whiting showed decades ago that they are found in societies where all children, including boys, are raised almost exclusively by women, and have to transition to men’s roles at puberty.  They occur in almost all such societies and in few others.)

Second, all societies, and especially all those more complex than a hunting-gathering band, have multiple moral alternatives.  One does not have to be a violent barroom brawler in the modern United States, even in the working-class white south (cf. Nisbett and Cohen 1996 on honor and violence in that milieu).  Very few Middle Eastern Muslims become terrorists or suicide bombers, despite western stereotypy.  Intimate partner violence is normal in some societies—19%, according to Fiske and Rai (2014:160)—but is uncommon and a “marked case” in most.

Third, Fiske and Rai do not distinguish between genuine cultural rules, individual moral poses, and outrageously lame excuses.  It is certainly a cultural rule almost everywhere to kill attackers who are trying to kill you and your family.  It is a cultural rule in all civilizations that if you are a soldier you must kill enemies when ordered.  It is an individual choice, not a rule, to beat your wife and children, murder your rival, or commit suicide.  And doing such things is sometimes done for deeply held moral reasons (murdering your wife’s lover in many societies) but is usually done for reasons that do not play well in courts of law.  Political violence often is clearly due to hatred, however cloaked in rhetoric.  Much becomes clear when one listens to playground bullies:  “He was littler than me, so I beat him up.”  “I’m torturing this squirrel to death because it’s a varmint, it ain’t good for nothin’.”  “I hit my little sister to make her shut up.”  (Fiske and Rai quote a number of young peoples’ justifications for killing that are no more persuasive, but sounded moral in some sense.)  The grown-up forms of such excuses, “all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men” as G. K. Chesterton put it, are no less lame for being suave and phrased in proper political language.

My personal experience with violence—and I have known mass murderers, pirates, criminals, and other assorted perpetrators—is that almost all violence except obvious self-defense or defense of one’s country and loved ones is based on excuses as lame as the schoolyard bullies’ offerings.  Reading the genocide literature is particularly revealing.  The actual sins of the Jews, Tutsi, Hutu, urban Cambodians, and so on were trivial.  The hatred was whipped up deliberately for the basest reasons; the high moral justifications were blatant lies.  How many followers believed them remains unclear.  People did what they were ordered to do.

We are left with the near-universality of moral justifications for violence, but with a range from genuine, deeply held moral belief through serious but not-very-moral personal grievance down to the skimpiest of fig leaves covering crude hatred, rage, and greed.  Fiske and Rai have done a major service in focusing on these justifications and on the social poses that evoke them.  The claim that such moral arguments actually motivate violence must be evaluated case by case.

 

Cognition and Antagonism

 

All the above is heavily influenced by cognitive psychology, and specifically by the rational-emotional psychology of Albert Ellis (e.g. 1962), the cognitive-behavioral work on evil of Aaron Beck (1999), and the work of Albert Bandura, Roy Baumeister, and less directly Abraham Maslow (1970).  These are all cognitive social psychologists who give a major place to emotion in their theories.  Theories that focus solely on cognition have nothing to teach us about the emotional side of hatred; theories that focus solely on emotion (there seem to be none in the area of hate) would fail to account for the targets selected.  I have also drawn heavily on the literature on how people come to hold false views, especially the work of Daniel Kahneman (2011) and Gerd Gigerenzer (e.g. 2007).  Gigerenzer has been particularly useful in showing how wrong beliefs can be not only plausible but useful.  In the present case, they are useful in defending weak people against other people, and against confronting the horror of their own behavior.  It was discovering (back in 1980) the work on heuristic biases by Kahneman and his coworkers that started me on the path of understanding how people come to hold dangerously mistaken beliefs.

The basic principles of a cognitive-emotional explanation of evil can be summarized as follows.  First, people tend to blame other people—not fate, not the structures of the economy, not the weather, and most certainly not themselves—for whatever goes wrong in their lives.  Their misfortunes are caused by the Jews, or the poor, or the rich, or some such vague group.  The most usual problems people face—threats to their livelihood or wealth, threats to their social place, threats to their security—are assumed to be caused by other people, especially those who can be seen to be directly involved as “competition” or “disrespectful” or simply saliently different.  The root of evil is the belief that we can fix our problems by controlling or eliminating other people, rather than by rational means.  In fact, the usual problem in all cases of evil is power and control.  People try to maintain control over others, and it gets out of hand.  If they are also aggressive, it turns violent.

Second, this scapegoating is done from fear, so is most easily and typically done with weaker individuals or groups as scapegoats.  Wives, children, minorities, isolated individuals, desperately impoverished persons, do the paying for problems that they can very rarely have caused.  It is not true that “others” and “strangers” are the targets.  What stands out from accounts of genocide is the mass murder of friends, neighbors, even family members.

Third, social conformity is usually bent to this task.  The vast majority of harms in the world are done by people following customs, orders, or group pressures.  The more their leaders can whip up hatred among their followers, the more the ultimate harm that results, but simply following orders can be bad enough.  The leaders are then caught in a feedback loop: they have to whip up more hate, and eventually start killing the scapegoated groups, to keep their increasingly fanatical followers happy.  In the old days, the enemy was most often the neighboring country (English against French, Greeks against Persians, Chinese against steppe peoples, and countless other cases).  Today, it is usually the internal minorities.

In short, fear, threat, and insecurity make people seek enemies to hate, but since hatred is a result of cowardice in these cases, the hate is usually misdirected toward weaker but believably “competing” individuals or groups.

 

Antagonism is the general cover term for the usual sources of evil.  It is usually mindless, coming from culture, conformity, or orders.  Its natural basis is the normal “fight” response to threat, but it is increasingly distorted by weak fear, especially when weakness is part of cultural norms.  Some cultures, such as the Afghan-Pathan culture of the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderlands, are extremely violent, aggressive, and warlike; others, such as the Semai of Malaysia, are extremely peaceful.  People are duly socialized to be violent or to abhor violence.

Outright antagonism grades into callousness, which begins from the natural inability to do everything for everyone, but quickly becomes a way of morally disengaging from doing what one could do for ignored or despised groups.

Fighting over social place, control, and power is an entailed cost of sociability in a highly aggressive animal.  Culture, society, and structure all play into it, making everything worse or better, according to the specific teachings they provide.

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.

 

The real problem is inordinate drive for security, status, control, and power (again following Bandura, Baumeister, Beck and others).  “Greed” is almost always cruel vying for social position via wealth.  Those who just want a lot of stuff tend to be reasonably decent people.  They are willing to work and avoid risks.  What we consider greed in politics is usually a mix of desires for social place and for wealth.  To be like the Kochs, Princes, and Mercers, one must be both hateful and committed to an evil business: fossil fuels, military supply, mercenary fighting, corrupt politics, or outright crime.

Greed can be defined as negative-sum gaming for acquisition of wealth.  Power-hunting, similarly, is playing zero-sum or negative-sum games to get power, as opposed to working honestly for better administration and governance.  Antagonistic pursuit of social place is typical of societies where high place is limited, especially top-down hierarchies in stagnant economies.

Historically, the biggest reason for evil is maintaining and defending social power: oppression, suppression, from kings down to domestic violence.

Ultimately, the personal component of evil-doing—defined, recall, as gratuitous harm—usually traces back to fear and defensiveness.  The cure is empowerment such that one can rationally cope with fears.

Cowardly emotions differ from their normal equivalents.  Honest fear is not the same as cowardice.  Real anger—wrath at actual injury—is different from the coward’s petulant resentment and hatefulness.  Carelessness from sheer inattention to detail is not the same as defiant sloppiness or toxic irresponsibility.  Real religious feeling is not bigotry.  Love is not the same as the coward’s dependence and controlling clinginess, especially since the latter competes psychologically with real caring interest in the other person.  Treachery and betrayal follow from cowardice.

This may be the world’s commonest problem.  Callousness and bureaupathy follow from cowardly obeying, toxic conformity, toxic loyalty, and the like.  Mass shootings fit the profile: alienated, usually young, male, dealing with threats to their personal security by indiscriminate murder-suicide.  Islamic bombing and any suicidal warfare is similar.  The Big Lie and other fascist methods of rule and control take advantage of this cowardly defensiveness.  It causes anhedonism, taking offense at imagined or trivial slights, and negative overreaction in general.

Cultural variables include traditional enmity, direct threat, structural opponent status within a society, role expectations (especially for young males, warriors, “bad dudes,” and bureaucrats).

Situation variables include “offense,” “slights,” etc.  Threats to cultural and social position and standing are especially problematic. Scapegoating is the ultimate source of much or most genocidal murder.

 

Some anger is almost automatic and very hard to stop, notably when one’s self or loved ones are physically attacked.  Most anger, however, is decided on.  Political anger—which appears to be the main anger in modern societies—is most certainly decided: one learns who to hate and persecute and how angry to get, and one must decide to follow the leaders in this.  Fear is similarly decided on, when it is fear for long-term, wide-flung consequences or of vague political entities.  The decision component of social fear, anger, and hate has been too little assessed.  The degree to which these are taught by peers and media is better studied.

The steps one’s mind goes through in dealing with stress involve decisions at every point.  First, one must identify something as a threat.  Then one must decide whether to react with flight or fight.  One must decide how much flight or fight to apply.  Deciding how to react, and what level of reaction to display openly, is complicated.

This requires attention to what is actually causing the threat.  If one is being chased by a bear, no questions need be asked, but dealing with widespread social problems is something quite different.  Culture and society are all-important in deciding what caused the problem.  Is widespread crime caused by minorities? Inequality? Poverty? Bad upbringing? Weather? Injustice? Human greed? All of the above?  Morality and religion then largely determine how to decide, and then how to intervene.

All this is predictable from basic insecurity and weak fear, left over from childhood and never dealt with by learning rational coping techniques.  To the extent people learn to cope reasonably and rationally, they escape weak, fearful, irrationally negative coping mechanisms.  People need security, status, control, and some material goods; they can get these rationally, or through cooperation, or through irrational levels of harm to others.  Mindsets change from working with others to working against them.

Reasonable alternatives include distancing oneself, resenting silently, turning the other cheek, being as pleasant or fearless as possible, and just bearing hardship.  From there, the next step is to actual caring: helping, enjoying, working.

 

Authoritarian and Bullying Personalities

 

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 “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 and behaviors 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.  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.”  The classic bully does what he can to get in your face.  He is resentful toward the world at large.  He attacks both the weak (“contemptible”) and those in authority; he revels in breaking laws and conventions.  Bullies resent civility; it interferes with their activities, and they brand it as “weakness.”  They resort to lying and “gaslighting” as routine methods of manipulating others, and to insults.  They tend to be violent and unpredictable.

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 irresistible, leading to a remark attributed to Henry Kissinger, “power is the best aphrodisiac.”

Evil people, from ancient Greek demagogues to Hitler and Trump, 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 often desperate for control and power.  Saints, on the other hand, tend to be 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, leaving only those who were either bullies or saw repression as simply a necessary job to do.

Stalin and Hitler were probably psychopathic or at least highly destructive individuals who seized power and were then in a position to get the masses to imitate and follow them.  Their power-hunger was not necessarily emulated by the majority, but their hatred was.  Many evil leaders, however, seem reasonably normal except for their inordinate lust for power at all costs and their ability to mobilize those scared into following at all costs.

 

Othering

 

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 or infrahumanization.  The first two are overreaction (overemotional reaction) to fear, threat, and hurt, with structural opponentship (not just difference) seen as a threat.  The common ground is seeing people, or some people, as bad or unworthy.  All or some people are to be bulldozed, dominated, or preyed oneven family and friends, let alone real opponents.

The third is failure to consider people as fully human, or even failure to consider people at all.  People become 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.  Exceptions are neighboring groups, often traditional rivals for land and resources.  Hostility without much othering—without displacing it to an outgroup—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.

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 fantastically overstated lies: 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.  In Paul Farmer’s oft-quoted remark, “the idea that some lives matter less is the root cause of all that is wrong with the world.”  (This line is very widely quoted, but without attribution.) They are condemned simply because they are poor, or Jewish, or female, or black-skinned, or rich, or any of the other things that give hateful people an excuse to dismiss whole categories of humanity.  However, extreme rage and hate are very often deployed against wives, husbands, children, parents, close friends, and other loved ones.  Family violence seems, in fact, to be a strikingly accurate small-scale model of genocide.  Assassination is even farther from Farmer’s general case; it involves targeting people because they are important.  Thus, while usually the targets of evil are downvalued, sometimes they are targets specifically because they are highly valued.

Othering takes many forms.  One recalls the British stereotypes of “foreigners” and “savages” in the days of the British Empire: French ate frogs and snails and were effeminate, Germans drank beer and were big and dull, Italians were dirty and noisy and smelled of garlic, and so on for every group the British contacted.  American stereotypes of the 20th century were usually similar, though less well defined.  Children’s books reveal these stereotypes most clearly, and were one of the main ways they were learned.  Political cartoons often trade on them to this day.

The same general rules apply to hate and disregard for other lives—for animals and plants.  Cruelty to animals and destruction of nature are common.  The mindset seems to be the same: either uncontrolled rage at the familiar, or displacement of hate and fear to weak victims, or sheer indifference backed up by social attitudes.  The Cartesian idea that animals are mere “machines” that have no real feelings has justified the most appalling abuses.

Summing up, one finds four rough attitudinal clusters:  negative stereotypy; callousness (cold indifference, selfish greed, cold callousness, etc.); anger, rage, and hate, 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 Benjamin Madley’s study of California in the 19th century (Madley 2016); for a full worldwide survey, see Ben Kiernan’ Blood and Soil (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.

Critically important is awareness that there is a continuum from good to evil, and specifically from actual enmity to utterly unprovoked genocide: from treating people with antagonism, as enemies, because they actually are so, to treating them as enemies because they might really be a threat, to treating people as enemies because they seem different and numerous enough to seem a threat to fearful leaders, to treating any different group as a threat simply because its difference is obtrusive or because it is in the way of settlement or “development.”  This tends to correspond very closely with the continuum from courageous fighting against attacking force to increasingly cowardly displacement of aggression to ever weaker targets.  Bullies are cowards, and authoritarian leaders are bullies.

Broad overviews hide an enormous amount of small-scale variation.  Modern regions like Scandinavia and the Low Countries have reduced violence to a minimum.  The Vikings—among the most predatory of humans 1000 years ago—are now among the most peaceful, orderly people on earth, showing the extent to which change is possible.  The Cambodians, as noted above, went from famously peaceable to record-setting mass murder and back to tranquility within a few years.  This is not new: among traditional societies, the peaceful San hunters and Semai farmers are balanced by violent subarctic hunters and Upper Amazon farmers (Robarchek and Robarchek 1998), and changes from peace to violence and back are common.  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.

All religions attack the major evils, but people do evil and then claim their religions made them do it.  There are always excuses.  Morality is never enough.  Society needs laws, and needs to enforce them.  The most important conclusion is that people can create peaceful communities.  Evil is not necessary.  It can be reduced to low levels. 

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, usually the physically 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.  Diana Young (Facebook posting of April 11, 2018) has correctly noted that the mass shooters so common in our day almost all have a background involving domestic violence and threats.  She suggests that mass shooting may be an extension of domestic violence.  This is an idea worth serious exploring.

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; intimate partner violence provides much insight into genocide (Anderson and Anderson 2012, 2017).

 

Moral Disengagement

 

Moral disengagement is eminently visible in the treatment of slaves and other victims, and in bureaucratic neglect of populations.

Albert Bandura’s book Moral Disengagement (2016) covers that aspect of evil in detail. Evil is often done for alleged moral reasons (as in religious persecutions), or for openly immoral ones (as when a sadist psychopath kills), but most evil involves some degree of moral disengagement: minimizing, excusing, or justifying what is done.  Bandura covers the individual agency involved in this, and also the way society magnifies that by marshaling euphemisms, blaming others, playing the “you do it too” card, minimizing damage, dehumanizing or partially dehumanizing victims, personally disengaging and becoming callous or escapist, causal displacement, attribution of blame to the victims or to the wider society, and above all justifying one’s behavior by claiming a higher morality.  Bandura covers recent newsworthy events: gun violence and gun culture, terrorism, banking crimes, pollution and environmental damage, capital punishment, and others.  He thus spares us (usually) the endless citing of Hitler that tends to let moderns off the hook.

Moral disengagement, victim-blaming, and self-justification are indeed typical of almost all human activities that do harm and of almost all humans that harm others.  They are a major food of the bad wolf.  The problem with Bandura’s book is that he lumps evil morality (fascist ideology, Communist extremism) with disengagement, which is surely wrong.  Sheer hatred and antagonism is the real root cause of evil and the true bad-wolf chow.  Still, Bandura has done an extremely important task in covering with great thoroughness the ancillary mental gymnastics that allow people to harm and kill without much guilt.

 

Self-esteem

 

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 commonly 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.  People need some degree of self-esteem and self-regard, so they concentrate on their strong points and minimize others’ lives and endowments.

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 (2012) suggests the term “infrahumanization.”  Many recent studies of genocide have made the same point.  Baumeister 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).  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 lists.

This, however, results from two things: basic predisposing factors of personality (threatened egotism, sadism, psychopathy) and immediate triggering factors (greed, idealism).  Moreover, “greed” is not desire for material goods; it is willingness to get material goods at the expense of other people, harming them in the process.  The same goes for social position, social acceptance, and even desire for power and control.  They are not bad in themselves, because they can be, and often are, used for good.  They become evil and cause harm when they are won at the expense of others.  Those triggers do not cause evil in people who are not in a state of hatred, bullying, or overcontrolling others.  In people who have fed the good wolf, desire for material goods is satisfied by working with others for the common good, or at least by healthy competition of the Adam Smith variety; desire for social acceptance and approbation is satisfied by being nice enough to be genuinely liked; desire for power and control is satisfied by being a good leader and administrator.  We all know people who are not particularly nice or pleasant people, but who make good administrators anyway, simply because it is the reasonable thing to do; being a vindictive bully is common, but helps no one.  People are notoriously sociable, and do not need Immanuel Kant to explain that good social strokes are, in the end, better than inordinate wealth or power.  We are left no closer to an explanation of why ordinary people without the basic personality factors of a psychopath 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” (from the Inquisition to 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.

Idealism that involves little beyond torturing people to death hardly deserves the name of idealism.  It 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 little beyond murder.  Usually, hypocrisy is suspected, not without reason.

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 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.  Similarly, defensive war against invaders is often a good thing.  Very different is the “idealism” of the Khmer Rouge and their ilk, who did nothing but kill innocent and helpless victims.  Of course, idealism can get corrupted fast, as in the French and Russian revolutions.  The boundary between good and evil is the point at which a reasonable person, independently judging the situation, would judge that there is clearly gratuitous harm occurring.  Rationality is hard to achieve in this world, but necessary in this case.

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

 

Individuals vary.  A few seem saintly.  They are the ones that resist even pressures to kill during mass genocides.  They have strong internal controls on aggression.  Others are less constantly moral, but most humans have a great deal of innate empathy—abilities to feel others’ emotions and sensations, understand them, and act accordingly (Denworth 2017).

Others seem genuinely evil; they seem almost incapable of acting without harming someone.  These are generally called sociopaths or psychopaths—people who appear to have been born without a moral compass and without a way of acquiring one.  Others seem moral enough most of the time but 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 and hyperaggressive persons 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” (Denworth 2017:61; cf. Baskin-Sommers et al. 2016).  They may have anomalies in neural connections in the brain.  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 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.

Most people are peaceable, empathetic, and reasonable most of the time.  We can arbitrarily guess that 10% of humanity are deeply evil—not always acting badly, but doing evil on a regular enough basis to produce serious net harm to their communities.  This 10% figure is supported by crime rates, voting for extremist candidates, and common experience, but is basically a guess.  More serious estimates are that about 1% of the population is psychopathic, but even this estimate is shaky.  Others show social dominance orientation, looking favorably on high levels of social and economic inequality in society and to patriarchal social organization.  Dominance is not a human need, but certainly is a widespread want, and the simple desire for it is a major source of evil.  Most mammals have dominance hierarchies.  Humans are notably lacking in innate tendencies in that direction (Boehm 1999), but very often develop them anyway, especially via top-down hierarchic systems.

These dubious actors can be balanced by the best 10% or so:  the 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 reasons for such variation in mentality are partly unknown, partly developmental.  The latter shall be discussed below.

The other 80% (approximately) 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.   There are continua from acceptance to rejection of groups, from positive to negative-sum gaming, from laudable ambition to power-madness, from necessary defense against enemies to defensiveness based on cowardly fear.  It is hard to cut these continua at safe points.  The common ground is simple: wanting social and economic security, especially in social acceptance and position.  What matters is how rationally and cooperatively one seeks to satisfy those wants.

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, as they range from passive to active and from weak to strong (the classic three dimensions of agentive evaluation).

Common experience also teaches that those of us in the 80% tend to weasel good and bad (thanks to Jennifer Skornik on this point).  We drive too fast.  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.  We spend too much time giving nibbles to the bad wolf while trying to serve the good one.  We are, in short, frail and fallible humans—and require strong social standards backed up by law to keep us on the straight and narrow path.  Religious and moral ideals are all very fine, but must be enforced by social conventions.  Most of us have experienced life in communities where traffic laws were laxly enforced, and have seen ordinary “good” people slip into more and more dangerous driving until accidents make the police take better note.

Allow that people are, on average, 50% good and 50% bad.  (Again, these are guesses.  We have no real measures.)   The worst 10% can win by mobilizing the 40% who are worse than average but not totally evil, and then getting enough of the relatively good to make a majority.  In fact, Hitler was elected with a bare plurality, not a majority, and the same is true of many elected evil leaders.  Trump was elected by 25% of the voting public, with almost half of registered voters not bothering to vote at all.

Half good, half bad predicts the institutions we see in societies: they are meant to preserve the good, and to redirect the bad to fighting “the enemy” rather than the rest of us.  And they never work perfectly.

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 (and are consistent with the “Big Five” and “Hexaco” personality theories), 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 Paul on love of money (p. 17).  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.

Greed, though, is generally a social hatred issue; it is about rivalry for power, for control of people, for competition with people over resources.  The normal expectation if one actually wants some item or some wealth is to cooperate with others to work for it, or at least to work for others in a peaceful setting.  Smash-and-grab is not the normal way to get goods.  The rich who desire endless wealth are not after wealth; they are after social position and social adulation.

Really extreme, high-emotion evil thus usually comes from social hatreds—whether due to psychosis, greed for position, “honor,” extreme defensiveness, extreme need to control others, extreme sensitivity to slights, or—most common and deadly of all—displacing hatreds and aggressions onto weaker people or onto defenseless nature. When not feeding from those troughs, the bad wolf tends to go to sleep, leaving the field to the good wolf.

In short, there are huge individual differences between those who are antagonistic and touchy about everything, and those who feel secure.  Personal factors involved are concerns of power, control, social place, and greed and other wants.  The social and cultural contexts are all-important, telling individuals whom and how much to hate.  The worst individuals seek out each other.  They also seek out the worst cultural and social values and attitudes.  This produces a strong multiplier effect, highly visible in right-wing social movements.  Cowardly defensiveness, gain (not just greed but even routine jobs), power and control needs, and innate aggression levels all play into such attitudes.

 

Cultures Vary

 

Cultures also vary.  A pattern broadly visible in eastern Asia is one in which both individuals and societies can flip from extremely peaceful to extremely violent and back to peace.  Chinese dynasties exhibit this pattern: during times of strong government, they were very peaceful and orderly, but in dynastic breakdown periods, violence became universal and appalling.  Japan had similar flips, for example from the rather calm Ashikaga shogunate to the civil wars of the 16th century and then the peaceful and orderly Tokugawa shogunate.  A modern case is Cambodia; the Cambodians were famously peaceful, and dropped rapidly back to peaceful behavior after the meltdown in the 1970s that killed some 25% of the population.  Rwandans moved from genocide to peace and order with surprising ease; like Cambodians, they are usually gentle and tolerant people, far from the western media stereotypes of “savage tribal Africans.”

Still other societies have chronic low levels of violence, fluctuating but never very high.  Still others, especially in the Middle East and northern Africa, have fluctuated over time from constant low-level violence to major outbreaks.  Some few, such as the Waorani, are or were almost continually violent.

The differences are often in the cultural construction of bullying, power-jockeying, and hatred.  These can become idealized and culturally taught, via religion and other ideologies.  Nazism is the most obvious and extreme case of a culture constructed from such bases, but it is only the most extreme of many movements.  All religions eventually construct power via hierarchies, initiations, and other institutions.  All cultures construct aggression through ideas about war and defense.

Many of the cultural groups that committed the worst genocides were famous for their obedience to authority: Cambodians, Rwandans, Chinese, Germans…the list is long.  Many warlike and independent groups also became genocidal, but the link with obedience is clear enough to be thought-provoking

 

Power and Control

 

The counter is any natural emotion that does not involve doing down other people to maintain the illusion of control.  Normal interest, enthusiasm, love, care, concern, generosity, cooperation, and innocent fun are not about to end in evil, and they are best satisfied by warm, close personal relationships.  Rational self-interest, cultural teachings, and innate senses of morality must be aligned to keep the good wolf fed.

Evil-doing individuals often are willing to dedicate their lives to the pursuit of power.  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.  Their good is divided into many small good deeds.  They are also easily unified behind leaders who appeal to solidarity and group loyalty.

It is notoriously easier to unite people against a perceived enemy than for a good cause—a point so often made that it needs no citation.  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 attract 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 easiest way to motivate and above all to unite people is set them against “enemies.”  The weaker, more salient, and more physically and socially close they are, the easier to go after them.  So evil often starts with domestic violence.  Even more often, it starts with attacks on the neighbors or on oppressed minorities.  Actual enemies are often the last to be attacked, since they will fight back.  It is easy to unite people through conformity to exclusionary norms.  Tolerance and openness, however, are a bit of a psychological luxury; they sharply decline when people feel their mental energy is exhausted (Tadmor et al. 2018).  Still more of a luxury is actual enjoyment; one must be out of threat zone to relax enough to cultivate the arts of life.

The worst problems occur when power-mad people figure out how to use morality to sell their drive for power.  Religious hatred is the commonest and worst way, but nationalism, militarism, and communist and other revolutioinary ideologies have done all too well.   In the United States we have seen hatred justified by opposition to illegal-immigrants, by appeals to law and security, and by opposition to “hate speech,” which seems generally defined as speech by one’s opponents.

Almost anyone will use any power they have to live as luxuriously as possible, kill their enemies and imagined enemies, and help their families and friends at the expense of others.  Many, not all, will go on to hate the weak and the different.  Old-time kings killed along political and kin lines, not ethnoc-religious lines, except in the western world.  But they often killed as many people as genocide kills now

 

Evil is usually done for four reasons:  callousness toward people who “don’t count”; anger toward people who do count—very often loved ones and family that one wishes to control but cannot control; hatred toward specific groups, almost always scapegoated minorities; and hatred of actual enemies.  Greed as a factor may lie behind these, but it generally acts through them; the selfishly greedy dehumanize or disregard their victims.  This produces some ambiguity.  In a war, one must maximize killing of the opposition soldiers—either civilians or those ordinary unfortunates drafted by evil but personally safe overlords.

Another major background factor in evil is negative-sum gaming.  This often involves seeing the world as steadily declining, such that one can do better only by taking from others.  Often, people who feel the world is getting worse see themselves as hopelessly downward-bound, and see no way to slow this except by taking more and more from weaker people and groups.  This was visible in much of the voting for Donald Trump.  His backing was concentrated among people who saw their groups as downwardly mobile.  They saw their best hope in getting what they could, while they could, at the expense of other groups.  Fear is abundantly obvious in such cases.

Most common and dangerous 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 generalization 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.  Even sports team rivalries may lead to war (Anderson and Anderson 2012).

Weak fear remains one root of the problems.  Callousness and bureaupathy follow from cowardly obeying, toxic conformity, abd toxic loyalty.  The range of behaviors goes on to touchiness about “honor,” overattention to negativity, holding people to ridiculous standards, rage, overcontrolling, dominating, domineering, general antagonism, inimical attitude, and finally violence and murder.  Common or universal is an attitude that everyone’s bad traits are what count; their good does not.  People become rigid and judgmental. The result is factions and fractions.

The worst results of weak fear are the need to assert more and more control over those who are potentially out of control, and the need to attack disproportionately those who attack one.  Minor slights become cause for murder.  These can be at individual or group levels.  Mass shooters fit the profile: alienated, usually young, males, dealing with threats to personhood or social place by indiscriminate murder-suicide.  Suicide bombing and any suicidal warfare is similar, but often done by well-adjusted individuals doing what they have been led to do.

In short, weakness leads to low self-efficacy and irrationally fearful and defensive behavior.  This leads to displacing anger and hatred downward, to vulnerable individuals and groups.  Ability to think rationally or morally suffers in proportion.  Ability to enjoy and love suffer too (Bandura 1982, 1986).

From this and from actual enmity come traditional hatreds.  Evil people who rise in society exploit these.  Society is thereby progressively degraded.

 

Sidebar

 

The basic axioms of authoritarianism are:

Since I’m in power, I’m better than you.

My first need is to keep you under control.

Your differences from me—especially in such basic matters as religion and ethnicity—are bad: threatening, inferior, inappropriate, offensive.

You must be kept weak.

Since raw fear is the easiest and most straightforward way to do this, torture and cruelty are central elements of power and discipline. But, since those attract resistance, in time they must be softened by a phony ideology of “good” and “ideals” plus development of a socio-political-economic structure that keeps the weak down.

The rulers, or would-be rulers, are the Chosen People.  “Progressives” are often as bad in this regard as other bigots.

I’m more powerful than you, so I make the rules (then there is the q of how the power comes: force, majority rule, money, etc.). I’m in charge here.  This holds all the way from “I’m the mom, that’s why” up to the dictator level.

 

Trying to Cope

 

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.

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.

However, 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.  Christianity became the excuse for the Crusades.  Islam declined from a call for unity and peace to a call for jihad.  Classical Greek stoicism and related philosophies of ataraxia (suppressing desire) became excuses for expanding the empire.  Even Buddhism, which explicitly bans violence and teaches compassion to all beings, became the religion of the samurai, and has also 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 peaceable Buddhism and violent Islam widely current in American society.

There is a basic common theme of religion turned evil: it is obsessed with control, especially control over sexuality.  The clearest and most obvious common theme of religions that harm and oppress is that they focus on harming and oppressing women.  This is the clear distinguishing feature between right-wing and liberal Christianity, extremist and ordinary Islam, ultra-Orthodox and reform Judaism, extremist and ordinary Buddhism, and so on throughout the world’s religions.  Repression of women usually carries over to repression and abuse of children (“Spare the rod and spoil the child”).  Degree of intolerance for heresies, including the most minor and trivial divergences from practice, also tracks religion turned harmful; the opposite is ecumenism or tolerance.

Religions all seem to fall into the trap of seeing ordinary innocent need-satisfaction and fun as “sin,” while social jockeying for position and control is taken for granted, and even put to evil use to promote the faith.  No religion seems to face the obvious fact that most evil in the world is done to maintain social position or control.  Religions have hierarchic orders, organized monasteries and priesthoods, and so on, thus leaving themselves open for the worst sins of all while fighting the trivial ones.

Killing desire, the goal of some religions and philosophies, frequently succeeds in killing desire for the morally good, while leaving hatred intact.

Some argue 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.

The problem is clear: all these are social, all of them define groups, and it is social group hatred that is the main and usual problem.  Religions usually blame greed and lust, but cannot get rid of them.  The real problem is social hate, and the religions do not even try to get rid of it.  In fact, they often cause it.

 

Inevitable Conflicts

 

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 ordinary everyday conformity 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 such stories.

Another inevitable conflict often recorded in song and story is between security and advancement.  Advancing in society requires taking some risks.  People usually and naturally act to minimize risk for maximum advancement, but there are plenty of exceptions, and they are often the leading entrepreneurs and inventors.  Managing to try to make advancement opportunities more secure is a major part of economic behavior for many of us.  Cutthroat competition is thus stressful.

These songs and stories turn on courage and on failure, on individuals against the world and on the world as opportunity and challenge.  They are the corrective to dismissing and devaluing people.  The hero powerful against the storm, especially if the hearer or reader can identify with that hero, is humanity in compelling form and inescapable predicament.

In modern society, traditional folk and elite societies, communities, and cultures are thinned down or extirpated.  People are left to the tender mercies of vast, impersonal governments and firms.  This out-of-control inequality, and above all the sheer bigness, makes people feel weak, out of control of their lives, and lacking in self-efficacy.  They become timid, and succumb all the more easily to toxic conformity and obedience.  Lost are such empowering and strengthening cultural forms as great art and literature, and even ordinary civility and decency.  Weakness and fear makes people desperate for security, including material security; the result can look like greed, but is actually cowardice.

 

Feeding Wolves Over the Life Track

 

The roots of evil have a genetic component.  Psychopathy, sociopathy, and aggressiveness seem to run in families.  The fight-flight-freeze response is in everyone.  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 and Ellis e.g. 1962).

More important is the clear genetic drive in infants to explore, engage, learn, socialize, communicate, and even create.  Babies are surprisingly interactive, and mostly in a positive way, trusting and smiling.  They cry a lot when they are uncomfortable, and can fear strangers, but they are basically a rather positive set of humans.  Allowing them to explore and interact in a secure, supportive environment is the key to feeding the good wolf pup.

“Learning” may be too narrow a word for environmental influences.  Trauma even generations ago can affect the brain, via epigenetics.  Trauma in the womb and during birth can more directly affect the brain.  One common result of such trauma 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.  (See, again, Beck 1999; also Bandura 1982.)

Werner and Smith (1982, 2001) children growing up resilient or otherwise.  They found that about ¾ of children raised in poverty and rough surroundings did perfectly well.  These were the ones who had strong, reliable families.  Half the rest were redeemed by institutions—good schools, the military, and the like.  The final fourth were products of broken homes, and usually of abuse and neglect.  Unfortunately, abuse teaches children to abuse, and neglect teaches them to neglect.

Infants start by feeling generalized discomfort when scared, wet, cold, hungry, or otherwise needy.  They cry for what they want.  Failing in that, they can bear it or become frustrated.  Over the first two years of life, frustration turns to anger.  Good parents teach children to bear when needs cannot immediately be met; bad parents punish the child for whining.  Young children quite normally throw temper tantrums if they are tired, frustrated, uncomfortable, scared, or in need of affection or a sense of control.  Ignored, these taper off; punished, they turn to lifetime anger.  This turns to hate if the child learns to hate from parents and peers—not otherwise.  Meanwhile, better-raised children learn to help, share, and be sociable.

Adults usually acts from fear of losing social place, but the babyish causes—fatigue, discomfort, and the rest—still operate.  On the other hand, children learn to reason, to think things through, to obey, to be considerate, and to conform (for good or ill) at the same time they learn to throw temper tantrums.  The good parent will act accordingly.

Security, especially security within a supportive circle of family, is the child’s greatest social need.  Childen denied acceptance or other social validation lose security and become fearful, often acting out fear through anger.

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 unintelligent but physically strong schoolyard bullies who beat up “smart kids” as a way of using what they have—strength—to deal with ego threats caused by what they lacked.  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 often (if not always) 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.  We use our strengths to defend—often to overdefend, and often to deflect our hostility downward, to those weaker than we are.  Caring for others is innate, but must be developed, and ways to be caring and considerate must be taught.  All cultures have rules about this, and all cultures have alternatives, including “nice” ones for everyday and less nice ones for dealing with actual threats and enemies.  Learning when to use the appropriate coping mechanism is thus crucial.  Gradually, the child learns to feel appropriately, and to use the appropriate cultural forms to express feelings.  A great deal of bad-wolf behavior comes from getting this wrong.

Teaching is especially important for those that were especially stressed growing up, or developed especially inadequate responses to stress.

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.

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.

It appears that being raised by one highly critical parent and one parent who retreats and becomes passive is the canonical formula for producing a scared and defensive child and adult.  If both parents are punitive, the child tends to become a bully and ultimately a right-winger; if both mild and gentle, the child becomes well-adjusted but often frail in the face of the world’s harshness.  Firm but accommodating and communicating seems to be the ideal parenting stance, but research is ongoing.

A critically important point made by the psychologists above is that a typical young child comes to depend especially on one specific immature defense mechanism, which then becomes the most stubborn and intractable problem in adulthood—the one thing most resistant to psychotherapy and life experience, and the one hardest to bring to full consciousness and self-awareness.  The bigot’s hatred and overreaction to threat are very often, perhaps always, the products of such deeply entrenched immature mechanisms.  Psychologists also find that it is challenges to precisely the most relied-on defense mechanism that bring out the greatest fear, anger, and reactive defensiveness in people.  If your favorite coping mechanism is racism, for instance, you will be more defensive about your racism than about other defenses.

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.  The deadliest thing in any individual is the immature defense mechanism that is so useful that it is retained into adulthood, often becoming much worse in the process.

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” 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 can be 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.

The result is that raising a child to be caring and sociable, but also to bear stoically the discomforts of life, feeds into a sense of justice, fairness, compassion, and social decency.

Broadly, there are three sources of evil.  Some are born psychopathic, or have inborn aggression and anger.  Then upbringing makes the rest of the difference.  The bad traits add up to antagonism: ideation and behavior appropriate to dealing with enemies.  More common is bad parenting that makes the child overcontrolling, overnegative, and overdefensive, and often violent.  Finally comes culture, usualy in the form of the peer group, whose importance is often underestimated (J. R. Harris 1998).  The family creates the basic psychodynamics.  The peer group provides the ways to express those—whether through bullying, random violence, and cruelty or through mutual help, support, and kindness.  These all feed back on each other.  A born psychopath will probably have a difficult family, and will almost certainly seek out bad company and bad coping strategies.  A badly-raised person will adopt bad ways of acting.

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.  They 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 are scales 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.  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.

The bottom line is that all children are born with a capacity to care and a capacity to fight, flee or freeze when threatened.  What happens after that is what feeds the two wolves.  Teaching the child to expand considerateness, caring, and empathy feeds the good wolf.  So does teaching self-reliance.  Teaching fear and hate, and teaching the child to take offense easily, snap at legitimate concerns, and resist learning, feed the bad wolf.  So does breaking the child’s self-reliance; that guarantees fear and defensiveness, and above all it teaches the child to conform to hateful norms—the problem identified at the beginning of this paper.

The result is the range from people who can handle anything and continue to care to people who can handle nothing without complaining and attacking others.    Meekness makes for law-abiding and doing one’s job.  Antagonism plus fear causes the problems.

 

Learning and Hating

 

From this we observe that the personal problems that make people hate, or make them vulnerable to social hates, develop very early, and are at the individual level.  However, the hates themselves are socially learned.  One has to learn that “Jews,” or “Armenians,” or “poor people,” or “heathens,” or any other devalued category is regarded as “bad” by the community.  This makes category hatred at least theoretically easier to deal with than personal fear-based antagonism.   We can establish cultural norms of acceptance and valuing.             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.  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.  Most 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.

Another social and cultural force is pressure on young men to prove themselves by acts of social daring or self-sacrifice.  In warlike or violent societies, and sometimes even in peaceful ones, young men are under extreme pressure to be soldiers, fighters, or just “bad dudes.”  Young men are high in aggression and testosterone with or without cultural pressure, but they are peaceful enough in peaceful societies; their activity is used in work, or sports, or community service, or studying.  But in warrior societies it becomes the “toxic masculinity” of the current popular press.  Usually, it requires specifically bad education to make a young man truly vicious or murderous, but there are many cases—the nomadic societies of old Central Asia, the Plains Indians, the New Guinea highlanders, for instance (Bandura 2016:17-22)—where every young man is expected to be a fighter and to see action.

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 unpleasantness, 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 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 development.  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.  Whenever people are stressed, they will become scared or angry, and will often go to irrational lengths with their responses, harming themselves and those around them.  Only cool reason and cultural guidance can keep them in line to fix, bear, or escape, and cultural guidance is all too often in the wrong direction.

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.

 

The front story may consist of violence or other gratuitous real harm, invoked for direct reasons of security, control, greed, resentment, revenge, or sheer sadism.

The mid story includes intemperate anger (brief), hatred, callousness, bad leadership, unsettled times, individual differences.

The back story is the endless one of intemperate wants for security, status, control, power, and material goods.  The classic word for this was “lust”—not a sexual term, but a term for overweening desire for things of this world.  This was worse in contexts of warlike culture, plantation-type socioeconomic forms, and top-down hierarchies, especially if the top levels are willing to do anything to maintain and increase power.

 

Immediate problems include taking offense too easily, scapegoating, selfishness (hurting others to get stuff), and callousness and bureaupathy (plus the very rare actual sadism).  Immediate drivers are belittling and not counting others, or downright hatred.

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.

All the above can be reduced to the simple points that psychopaths are often well placed to seize power; obedience and conformity will then do the rest of their work for them; and humans, in the end, are most easily united and—in groups—motivated by fear expressed in hate.

 

A Bit of History

 

All societies have three processes always operating: negative feedback loops maintaining the situation without change; cycles; and positive feedback loops producing slow progress or decline over long periods of time.  Progress has generally dominated throughout history, despite long declines like that of the Roman Empire.

Over the last 50,000 years, there has been progress in science, arts, lifespan, food production, and other areas.  In agrarian societies, resentment and antagonism is directed against bandits and barbarians, as well as coups and religious deviants.  Early trade and commerce led to mercantilism and then freedom and democracy as the alternative, so the hopeful revolutions.  Early but full industrialization produced socialism and communism.  Later industrialization produced fascism, because elites were entrenched and powerful and good at oppressing and at divide-and-rule.  Resource squeezes made everyone worse off and less hopeful, thus easily turned to hate.

Following Adam Smith (1910/1776) and other political economists, and oversimplifying them somewhat for convenience, we find that almost all of this developed in expanding economies, especially those dominated by the trade, commerce, and human resources sector of the economy.  That sector has to invest in people to survive; it depends on skilled workers and innovation  Economies dominated by rentier primary production—plantation agriculture, mining, fossil fuels, and the like—are regressive, and often repressive.  Agrarian societies from the Inca to Sumer to China wound up the same: city, king, court, bureaucracy, vast mass of farmers from rich to landless.

In between are the vast majority of people—the ordinary workers and businesspersons who have to make a living today, and are thus more concerned with whether the immediate economy is going up or down than with vast forces of Progress or Return to the Old Days.  Especially if they are in business, they default conservative, but can shift rapidly and easily rightward or leftward.

Class is also, famously, a relevant factor; it has diminished from great importance in the mid-20th century in American voting to near irrelevance now, with almost equal shares of rich, middling, and poor voting Democrat or Republican.  This has tracked the rise of social issues such as racism and medical care at the expense of concern for immediate economic returns.

In many traditional societies, “honor” and distinction come from killing and looting, not from honest work or trade.  Not only warlike but even quite peaceful agrarian societies shared this attitude.  Fighting is honorable, compromising dishonorable.

One can predict with considerable accuracy the amount of evil in society by assessing the amount of rentier or primary-production-firm dominance of the political economy and the level of warlikeness of the culture.  Afghanistan, rampant with landlordism and steeped in a heritage of violence already noted by Alexander the Great, compares with more peaceable Bhutan.  The Vikings, ruled by landholding and slaveholding earls, contrast with their peaceable descendants in modern Scandinavia’s world of trade, commerce, and education.

The ancient Greeks saw a cycle: democracy gave way to autocracy (monarchy or oligarchy), which gave way to tyranny, which collapsed and left the way open for democracy.  This proved less than predictive, but cycles from relatively open to relatively totalitarian societies and back do appear in many historical records.

Really new good ideas spread from rich cores of trade and communication-based systems.  Military technology seems to spread fastest of all innovations.  Next come innovations in communication; people want to be in touch.  Then comes ordinary production.  Last comes the spread of morality.  Then in the twentieth century, primary production, especially fossil fuel production, took over., and now rules most of the world.

Critical to progress were several steps, mostly taken in Europe or China.  One was rapid discovery science, foreseen by the ancient Greeks, then developing between 1100 and 1600 in Europe.  Rationalized property rights and freer markets followed, for better or worse, in the 17th century.  The “worse” part of that development led to more attention to law and recourse, then to ideals of free speech, press, religion, assembly, and conscience.  (It is not mere coincidence that this took place at the same time as the explosion of slavery.)  Equality before the law for full citizens, and expansion of the citizen concept, came a bit later in the 18th century.  The logic led to a rapidly growing movement to end slavery, beginning in the mid-18th century and continuing till slavery was legally ended (though not ended de facto) in the late 19th.

The Enlightenment succeeded not just because of the rise of trade, commerce, and science.  Another key was the development of world trade too fast for any nation-state to control it.  Opportunity exploded, and traders managed it themselves, through international networks.  They had to deal, without government supervision, with people of very different cultures, faiths, and technologies.  This was one breeding ground of concepts of liberty, self-governance, tolerance, freedom of conscience, and personal responsibility.  One can compare the rapid rise of enlightenment in multinational Europe with its relative failure in East Asia during the centuries when the Qing Dynasty imposed its crushing weight on the East Asian world-system.

Another milestone was free public education, an idea from the early 19th century.  Through all of this, popular demand by people rising in society but left out by the elites was the usual cause.  It was always a fight: entrenched interests always opposed good changes, and religious elites were often the worst.  When self-interest combined with needs for fairness and equality, progress occurred.  The more normal human tendency to weather down and adapt to the system was always used by the elites to repress the masses.  So were hatreds of all kinds, as we have seen.

The Founding Fathers worked with a strong sense that we are all in this together and that my rights stop where yours start, sometimes phrased as “your right to swing your arm ends at my nose.”   Finally, they were aware that a society and its laws and economy exist within a moral shell, and that shell must be embodied in the laws and indeed in the whole system.  (They got this thoughtful perception from Adam Smith’s writings on morals.)  These basic principles lie behind the Constitution.

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 protection in oppression.  It meant rule of law, not of men.  It meant presumption of innocence, protection of all, and mutual defense.

These were seen as necessary because evil so often wins unless actively stopped.  A polity must have balances of power, equality before the law, universal voting rights, full recourse (rights to sue, etc.) in the event of direct harm, and the other rights the Founding Fathers thought—wrongly—that they had guaranteed in the Constitution.  It is amazing how easily Republicans now get around those rights.

 

The United States failed at the beginning, in allowing slavery and in refusing citizenship to Native Americans while taking their land.  It failed again in the Reconstruction by not enforcing full civil rights, and by 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.  This is not a helpful approach.

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 United States was formerly rather moderate in this regard, but negative-sum thinking has increased.)

Reform in US history has been strongly cyclic.  The course is highly consistent.  A few idealists will see a problem and a solution.  If they are right and if the problem gets worse, more and more people will be attracted to the cause, until a majority is on board and can prevail.  This happened with the Enlightenment values that drove the Revolution and the US Constitution.  The next major crisis was slavery: anti-slavery was early dismissed as crackpot, but with the progressive damage to the whole US economy by plantation agriculture with enslaved workers, anti-slavery prevailed (through war).  Next came the mounting criticism of deforestation and wildlife loss in the late 19th century, climaxing in Theodore Roosevelt’s environmental reforms.  The next crisis was the Depression, which led to massive economic reforms.  Then came environmental and food production crises in the 1960s, dealt with (inadequately) by laws in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Visionaries are always proposing new reforms, but these are picked up by the majority only if they are immediately practical ways of addressing real and worsening problems.  On the other hand, the opportunity allows the visionaries to pass many measures that the majority would probably not support otherwise.  The Bill of Rights, for instance, was added to the Constitution by Enlightenment visionaries; the Bill probably went beyond what the majority wanted at the time.

All the crises after independence were caused by the reactionary behavior of the plantation and big-resource-firm sector.  Slavery at its worst led to the Civil War; suicidal levels of environmental destruction led to massive reform campaigns in 1890-1910 and 1955-1975; cutthroat speculative and rentier capitalism led to the Depression.

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.

The broad contours of politics in the early 20th century made sense: the Republicans were the party of business, ranging from family farms to local businesses and up to large firms; the Democrats were the party of labor.  This led to reasonable dialogue (though also plenty of bullying and cruelty by bosses).  The change beginning in the 1920s, but not serious till the 1970s, was toward a Republican party uniting racism and giant reactionary firms, and eventually a Democratic party also becoming absorbed with identity politics rather than economic issues.  This has led to nothing but hatred, largely Republican racism and religious bigotry.  Serious discussion of economic issues is increasingly contaminated or lost in a welter of mutual accusations.

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.  The old-time world of folk, elite, and town forced people to work hard, cooperate, and toughen up.  Now, life is easy but frustrating, especially for those who aren’t succeeding.  People get soft, weak, and hence cowardly.  So, fascism.

In traditional agrarian society, life was short and usually ended violently.  People tended to escape into religion.  They also had songs and folk literature to teach them that individuals mattered—that life and death need not be in vain.  Now, few are in that position, so political action is commoner.  In small-scale societies, religion was about spirit power, since controlling the uncontrollable was desirable and any control of anything helped.  Now, fear and overoptimism are the problems.  So, pragmatic proactive help become the main alternative to giving up

 

Unfortunately, the decline of that world also led to the decline of folk and traditional culture after 1950, and then to the dominance of popular culture and passive consumption.  Arts deteriorated.  Great literature made people confront tragedy, intense emotion, and social and personal complexity; it became less and less appreciated.  The burgeoning interest in nonwestern cultures that taught people tolerance and mutual appreciation in the 1960s and 1970s waned, leading to isolationist identity politics in the 2010s.  The humanistic psychology and self-improvement movement of the 1960s-1970s collapsed and left little trace, outside of improvement in counseling practices.

Cultural life (in the narrow sense of  “culture”) succumbed to dominance by giant “entertainment” corporations.  It became dominated by faddism, conformity with the widest number, enjoyment as simply doing what was on the TV screen.  The Depression and WWII led to a lullabye culture, the soothing and mindless pop culture of the early 1950s.  That gave way to a range of developments, from rich and complex to trivial, but ultimately mass culture settled on “action” movies, video games, and other superficiality.  Much of ordinary life settled on the least emotionally and cognitively involving forms: mindless music, wallpaper art, fast food.

Political organization peaked in the 1930s and again in the 1960s with the civil rights and antiwar movements; solidarity, voter drives, demonstrations, teach-ins, and other forms of resistance thinned out.  Utopian experiments such as communes had a silly side, but they at least expressed hope; they are few and far between now.

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 used their decline as a marker of the widespread decline of civic and civil culture in America (Putnam, Bowling Alone, 2000).

With this went an explosive increase in rent-seeking, quick money games, and financial shenanigans, leading to monumental inefficiency in the economy (Mazzucato 2018).  Corruption in government has greatly added to this.  The situation in which everyone is out for what they can get, now, at the expense of the system, is characteristic of the end phases of political cycles.

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 (in sex, drugs, religion, media, 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, one may allow the record to speak.

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 that progressives and liberals 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.  One main driver has been the rise of inequality—especially the rise in power and wealth of the rich.  The rich are literally above the law; it is almost impossible to convict them of anything, given their ability to pay lawyers and bribe politicians.  Nazism and fascism have 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 Big Lie and other fascist methods of rule and control are manifestations of weak fear and take advantage of it.  Since 2016 they have become the government. Nor is the United States unique; this is a worldwide movement (Luce 2017).

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.

 

Evil ideology in the United States perfectly tracks economic evils.  The slave-based plantation world began it.  Continued decline of the rural south has made it more toxic.  It has spread first into other declining rural areas, then into declining manufacturing ones.  The “Southern Strategy” of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove was perfectly timed to take advantage of this.  The situation appears to be comparable in other countries.  The ties to giant-corporate primary production are clear.  Extreme hierarchy of power and wealth, and economic and social stagnation, are endemic to such systems.

The political conversion of the border south, Idaho, Montana, and the Dakotas came with the decline of labor unions and small farms and the rise of giant primary-production firms in those states.

Republican leaders today combine greed and hate.  One must go back to Hitler and Stalin to find anything comparable in terms of the sheer number of groups attacked.  It results in cruelty—deliberately going after not only the poor and weak, but everything that helps people: education, medical care, sustainable resource use, etc.  These new leaders support and are supported by the war and gun industry and the fossil fuels producers, the mega-polluters, and almost no one else.

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 corruption.  Clearly, American democracy and freedom are doomed unless Americans unite to save their best traditions (see Klaas 2017).

The United States saw regime change in 2016-17, with the collapse of the 240-year-old Enlightenment traditions and the commencement of a fascist regime dedicated to eliminating those.  Corruption in the modern United States guarantees collapse.  Most of it is legal.  Firms donate as they wish to politicians who vote on the issues that are critical to those firms.  Legislators vote on subsidies for firms that fund their campaigns.  Thus, evil interests—the ones that depend heavily on subsidies and that also harm the general good through pollution or dangerous speculation—become the biggest donors.  These include fossil fuels, arms and weaponry, and the riskier forms of high finance.

In general, the more socially tightly bound and the more hierarchic a society is, the more people unite in hating and lowest-common-denominator social presentation.  Progress and individual tastes divide.  The far right has learned to unite followers not only by arousing bigotry, but also by providing lowest-common-denominator entertainment (video games, trash music, and the like) that debase individuals and make them conform at a bottom level.  George Orwell foresaw this in 1984 and commented extensively on it in his essays.             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.  The leaders are the Koch brothers, who created the Tea Party and ALEC, whipping up dissention and proposing divisive legislation.  The 2017 tax cuts, opposed by 75% of voters and appealing only to the rich, show this dominance clearly.

Suicide, opiate abuse, and Trump voting are all strongly correlated; they are at high levels in the same places, including rural counties in Appalachia and the northern Midwest.  They indicate a level of despair in these downwardly-mobile areas.  Since these areas are overwhelmingly white, much of the despair translates to anger against minorities who are supposedly taking the livelihood or at least the social status of the white workers. Diana Mutz (2018) found that voting for Trump tracked perceived threats to group status, not economic woes.

At current rates of descent into fascism, the Republican administration will crack down around 2020, declare a state of emergency, suspend the Constitution, and begin full-scale genocide.  The Republicans, like Hitler (and apparently copying him), have engaged in widespread 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 and several other right-wing “Christians” have done).  As politics becomes more and more mixed up with racism, religious bigotry, and identity issues in general, it becomes more emotional, more passionate, and less civil, as shown by Lilliana Mason in her book Uncivil Agreement (2018).

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.  They are tied closely to government by subsidies and special favors and rules as well as by bribery and corruption.  In other countries, they 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 like 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.

Even the dinosaur firms are somewhat horrified at what is happening in the US, Turkey, Hungary, and elsewhere, but they cannot escape it now.  They depend on racists, religious fanatics, and other extremists.   The right wing has abandoned traditional conservatism in favor of an agenda that is anti-intellectual, anti-education, anti-science, anti-environment, anti-health-care, anti-poor, anti-young, anti-old, anti-minority, religiously bigoted in favor of extremist right-wing beliefs, anti-women, militarist, gun crazy, violent, pro-corporation and anti-taxpayer, corrupt, pro-unequal treatment and inequality, opposed to all human and civil rights, pro-dictatorship, anti-freedom of conscience, strongly hierarchic.  In their world, the powerful can do what they please and are above the law, the weak do what they are told.

Primary production by itself is not the predictor of evil.  Evil does come from the primary-production end of the economy, but only from the fraction of it that is controlled by powerful landlord or corporate interests.  The evil done in the world for the last 200 years has been largely at the bidding of plantations, fossil fuel companies, agribusiness, and related interests.  The driver is the slave-worked plantation and its modern descendants:  an economy based on a tiny, rich, powerful elite ruling a vast servile labor force of which most are expendable and can thus be killed in unlimited numbers to maintain discipline or simply for convenience.  Very different from the old monarchies, even tyrannies, which could not kill at will—they lacked both means and ability to spare so much labor.

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.

The Republicans, and equivalent parties in other countries from Russia to Turkey to Brazil, are now trapped.  They depend financially on a handful of giant corporations that are increasingly acting against the interests of the majority, and are increasingly dependent on bribing politicians for support—including exemption from laws, especially laws protecting people against physical damage.  China’s tobacco industry operates with the full support of the government, though tobacco kills 1.2 million Chinese a year, because the government depends on tobacco taxes and many individual politicians depend on bribes (Kohrman et al. 2018).  The oil interests occupy a similar position in the United States.

The future after 2030-2050 is clear enough: the world will move toward emulation of existing top-down primary-production systems.  These are recapitulating the society of the old agrarian empires.  Some 20% of the population will be starving, 65% barely surviving, 10% secure but not well off, 4% well off, 1% ruling and super rich.  There will be a steady downward sift as population falls, first from starvation, then from disease as health care gets cut back.

The world has made a collective decision to have one final orgy of consumption, rather than converting to sustainability and assuring a future for our children and grandchildren.  This appears in the rise of fanatically anti-environmental regimes in the United States, Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro, Russia, and elsewhere.

The difference from the old days is that with better means of surveillance and massacre, monitoring and genocidal elimination of dissidents will replace the wars and campaigns of old.  North Korea, China, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and several Middle Eastern countries already display this regime.  Turkey, Thailand, India, the United States, Venezuela, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Brazil, and several other countries are moving rapidly toward it.  The common thread seems to be that wealth is rapidly increasing but is being captured by the top 1%, while the masses stagnate economically.  The most frustrated and resentful are the less progressive fractions of the majority ethnic groups, and they are the drivers of the fascist trend, as they often were in the earlier fascist wave of the 1930s (a point made by Edsall 2018).  Really rough times have sometimes led to fascistic or psychopathic leaders taking over, but real hardship often tends to make people unite behind a capable leader rather than a merely evil one.  The breakdown of the United States in 1860 gave us Lincoln; growth appropriated by the rich while working-class whites lost out gave us Trump.

Democracy, in the end, may prove unstable—a brief interlude between the monarchies of the past and the fascist tyrannies rising in the present.  Resource crunches may simply make it impossible for the good to prevail.  However, this is not necessary at present.  We can stop the downward slide.

When the rich get richer and the rest are stagnant, people become more and more frustrated and resentful, which elites then take advantage of by divide-and-rule.  The direct cause of the present situation in many countries is that dinosaur industries—fossil fuel, industrial monocrop agriculture, and the like—have combined with shady or outright criminal interests to pressure governments for more and more subsidies and favors.  The fossil fuel companies and their allies need larger and larger government subsidies to keep them from being out-competed by newer, better technologies, such as solar power and diversified agriculture.  They also need government protection from being forced to internalize the costs of their production, especially from lawsuits for polluting the environment and killing people.  The shady elements, ranging from the wilder shores of finance to gambling to outright mafias and drug gangs, need protection from the law.  These interests group together to bribe politicians and elect compliant or downright criminal legislators and executives.  They get the voters on their side by whipping up hatreds, especially religious bigotry, but also racism, gender bias, hatred of science and education, hatred of liberals or of conservatives, and hate of different people in general.  This combination has proved successful enough to turn the government around in the United States, and also in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and many other countries.

 

Part III.  What to Do About It?

 

First Steps to Policy: Evaluating What Helps

 

In general, social change is effected by individuals working within existing structures, often modifying those structures in the process.  There is a front story of individual decisions, a mid story of human context, and a back story of demography, climate, existing rules and laws, and historical contingencies that create a “path dependent” situation.  Charismatic or brilliant leaders succeed, but only in hopeful times.  They cannot do much in reactionary times and regimes.  Democracy helps, but reactionary democracy does not.

 

Good behavior does not come easily.  One must not only be moral, but—more importantly—able to deal rationally and as coolly as possible with actual harms and stresses. The innate impulses toward developing morality stem from human needs for warm sociability.

Recall that it is easier to unite people against a common enemy, and to get them to follow orders if those orders involve destroying a hated or despised group, than to unite people in the cause of love and care.  People are sociable, and usually loving and caring to their close kin and friends, but fear and hate dominate public interaction unless rigidly combatted.

If people were really selfish, they would want happy, cooperative, mutually beneficial, warm societies and communities above all else—not self-aggrandizement at the expense of their friends and families and communities.  If people were not mean, they would hate disease and misery and unnecessary suffering—not each other or science or nature.  If they were interested in actual control rather than power to bully others, they would hate autocracy and unnecessary hierarchy.

Caring is the nexus, the alternative for which we strive.  We seek especially the broad sense: wanting good for others and wanting a good and harmonious society (even infants want that).  The Bible calls this agapé or caritas.  Significantly, we have no good word for it.

Humans being so prone to domination by the bad wolf, we must err on the side of caution, caring, helping, reching out, and empowering.

Viktor Frankl noticed that survivors of Hitler’s concentration camps were those that had something deeply important to live for and be responsible for.  Usually, this would be either families or work that was a real Calling rather than a mere job.  Sometimes it was religion.  He spent his life extending this observation, learning that almost all people need or want a deep meaning of this sort in their lives (Frankl 1959, 1978).  This is one basic counter to living for hate.

The other counters are the opposites of excessive anger: reasonableness and peacefulness.  The opposites of hatred are tolerance and valuing diversity.  The opposites of callousness are responsibility, but above all empathy and compassion, which may in the end be the most important qualities for all good-doing.  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.

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.

Above all, we need to drive rational, reasonable thinking and behavior against the irrationality (sometimes downright insanity) of murderous harm.

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.

            The only direct way to stop murder and mass violence is through appealing to reason and rational discourse while also enforcing strict laws within a rule of law.

This, by itself, is not enough.  We need to oppose evil with cultural and social teachings of help and unity, sustained by the innate moral or premoral sense of mutual aid and generosity that seem to inhere in humans.  Directly relevant, also, are natural interest—especially active warm interest—and curiosity, and the urge to learn more in order to improve.  Natural toughness and innocent enjoyment are reasonable and useful.

            The reason that advancing the good so often fails is not mere selfishness.  It is antagonism to cooperating and to working with others as equals, especially as seen in refusal to learn, change, and self-improve as part of the process.

            The cure is seeing all people as worthwhile and that we are all in this together.  The long first part of this essay demonstrated at length that the root problem is rejecting people for reasons of “essence”: the false belief that “race,” ethnicity, religion, and the like are somehow basic essences that condemn whole groups of people.  The only cure is seeing all as not only tolerable but worthy of help and of civil behavior.  Ideally, they are all equal before the law, and equal in opportunity—a hope not approximated in modern societies.

Seeing all as worthy requires checking excessive anger.  It also requires proactive compassion and empathy, to avoid callous bureaupathy and similar evils.  Studies on how to further such goals need to be done.  Our authors, notably Beck and Maslow, provide ideas and experiences.

 

The center and left in the United States has recently fallen back on being “the opposition”—opposing rather than proposing.  We need to borrow a leaf from parliamentary systems of government.  These usually have a government-in-opposition: a shadow cabinet made up of opposition figures who discuss policy and plan what to do if they cycle back into power.  The United States now needs a Democrat group who can develop policy and unite the party around it, via opposition figures serving as virtual 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.

Class or at least economic disadvantage should be the unifier.  We have seen how certain “progressives” of the 2010s failed disastrously by opposing their antagonism toward men and whites to right-wing antagonism toward women and minorities.  One does not fight fire with fire in a gasoline storage depot.

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, but can be worse than nothing when it is badly planned, or unneeded and intrusive.  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 do not inflict my rather old-fashioned Christian morality on my kids, let alone 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.  But 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 detailed rational consideration.

However, 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 it matters more to get the passions right, such that reason is a slave to the good ones.  It is at least as competent and hard-working a slave to evil as to good.

The direct opposite to evil 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.  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.

Checking evil 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 Goddess of Common Sense.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has listed ten ways to fight hatred: Act, join forces, support the victims, speak up, educate yourself, create an alternative, pressure leaders, stay engaged, teach acceptance, dig deeper.

 

Background: A Wider Moral Shell

 

Reasonableness, however, is inadequate.  People cheat on their own morals; they fall short and provide excuses.  They fail to reason correctly, and err in predictably self-serving directions.

Even without that, people must sacrifice to make community work.  They need to make up for cheaters, and they must be heroic in emergencies.  We cannot expect everyone to love and care much beyond the family and friendship circle.

Thus, every society on earth has had to develop a morality of self-sacrifice and service to others, and enforce it by public opinion.  They must conform up, to higher standards of behavior, rather than down into toxic conformity to evil norms.  This requires personal strength.

We must maintain a consistent, oft-repeated ideology of unity, solidarity, mutual aid, mutual care, and tolerance.  Such things are taught by religion, but religion is routinely coopted by hierarchies that discourage such virtues.

From a general sense of “we’re all in this together,” the first personal virtues are openness, warmth, interest in the world, self-confidence, and ability to enjoy life.  These imply a set of learned personal orientations: compassion, respect, responsibility.  These in turn entail

civility, reasonableness, courage, patience, and hard work.  Social attitudes include empathy and egalitarianism—both equality before the law and the rough-and-ready sense that we are all here and thus have to take care of each other and take people as they are.

All these result in ability to be socially responsible, and to carry out mutual aid, 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.

The main stem of this runs from caring through tolerance, valuing people, support, and compassion to actual help.  Ancillary to this stem are self-efficacy and learning.

Self-efficacy involves self-control, self-improvement, not trying to control others, courage, industry, and loyalty.

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.

All humans start weak and fearful, and all grow up in imperfect cultural and social surroundings.  We usually learn to be decent, but real proactive education in civility is therefore an absolute necessity.  Mencius was right about human sociability, but Xunzi was right that without moral education people turn evil.

The good person will thus ignore slights and dislike, being fully civil in such cases.  Actual threats have to be taken seriously, but rationally, by trying to talk things out, then seeking recourse, and only if that fails does one fight or flee.

Seek positive solutions.  Act for the good.  Do your best at what you do best.

Remember also the airlines’ truth: “secure self first, then attend to others.”  Above all, look to long-term, wide-flung benefits, not to short-term and narrow ones.

 

Towards a New Moral Order

 

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 should 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, or at least to accept them as valid beings—fellow travelers on this planet.  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 anyone’s 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).  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.

Great cultural productions can thus be used for self-improvement and for learning about the humanity and sensitivies of others.  If is is simply read for schoolwork, however, it does very little.  The depressing lack of empathy and humanity among well-educated leaders has often been noted.

People are fellow travelers on a lifeboat that has limited supplies and that is easily upset by fighting.  Rational self-interest teaches mutual dependence, and therefore mutual concern.  The most selfish person today, unless blinded by social hate, must accept this mutual dependence.  There is no escape.  Indeed, the rational person realizes there is a need for some degree of self-sacrifice, to make up for the inevitable slackers.

The ideal would be to ignore slights and ordinary dislike; be totally civil in such cases.  Take actual threats seriously, but civilly talk out the issues, then go for recourse as needed.  Physical threats may require physical solutions, but escape is necessary if chronic attacks are otherwise unmanageable.

 

These principles deal with individual morality and awareness of the need for it.  The social applications follow naturally.  These two principles call for a morality of helping, caring, and stopping gratuitous harm.  They call for accepting 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.  We are called to be nice to all, but for life work do your best at what you do best to help.  St. Paul’s “gifts differing” (Romans 12:6) is a watchword: people have different strengths, and this allows a complex society to exist and to be far more productive and efficient than one in which everyone had the same skills.

A part of this is realizing that there are no pure races and no pure cultures, and there never have been.  The racist and culturist appeals to purity are major sources of evil.  Recently, even “progressives” have been seduced by pure-culture theories, as in the more naïve theorizing about decolonialization and cultural appropriation.  Decolonialization means fixing social inequalities, not rejecting all cultural change.  Cultural appropriation is bad when it involves insulting stereotypes of others, or stealing their livelihood—not when it is simply normal borrowing.  Some progressives are being lured into genuine right-wing thinking—the old fascist lies about pure cultures and their need to remain pure.  In fact, a social morality for the future would involve, critically, learning the best from all the world’s traditions about how to manage the environment, reduce conflict, and keep societies moral.  Every culture and society on earth has experiences with these problems and has something to teach us.

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.

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.

 

The relevant teaching of the religions that care is to be as good as possible to sinners and lure them into a warm, supportive, nice community.  Religions all idealize warmth, helping, concern, and peace, but fail to encourage the interest, engagement, and love of beauty that are also necessary for the common good.  Religions in fact fear these, since they tend to make people think independently and want to change.

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 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. The need for control is the only human need that is never satisfied.  Since understanding is the only form of control that is good in large quantities, the wise will seek understanding instead of other forms.

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.

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 need to work on that as well as on making the laws apply to all equally.

 

Rules

 

It is depressing to read how the British and Americans, good Christians and lovers of Shakespeare and Milton, ran most of the world slave trade that killed perhaps 100,000,000 people in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  It is similarly depressing to read the sorry history of communes, idealistic communities, grassroots utopias, and the hippie movement.  Good intentions not backed up by firm social rules led only to collapse.

People being imperfect, progress comes from outlawing the bad and forcing minimal civil decency.  Appeals to inner virtue are not enough.  Historically, help has come from science and education, relative economic freedom within moral limits (as Adam Smith argued), and the Enlightenment program.  That program of democracy, equality, rule of law, separation of church and state, and civil rights has done wonders.  So has the idea of promoting people according to their knowledge and ability rather than according to their birth.  Meritocracy has a bad name recently, but any acquaintance with history shows that the alternative was far worse.

Comparing societies and communities that minimize violence and cruelty with those torn by it shows that only strict and specific rules help.  All societies outlaw murder, and that ban has real effect, depending on how many ancillary rules are passed.  Above all, it depends on how much the societies in question frown on violence as a way of solving problems.  Some societies regard violence as the only “manly” or “honorable” way to deal with problems, and they have murder and warfare rates that are many times—sometimes orders of magnitude—greater than the rates in societies that privilege peaceful methods of coping (Baumeister 1997; Pinker 2011; Robarchek and Robarchek 1998).

The absolute necessity in all this is the right to recourse.  People who are injured must be able to sue, to protest, to speak out, to vote evil leaders out, and to defend themselves in any reasonable way.  The success of democracies at preventing genocide and famine is notable, but even more important is the realization that in such democracies, only actual citizens avoid being killed or starved (Anderson and Anderson 2017; Howard-Hassmann 2016).  Noncitizens, such as Irish in the British Isles in the 1840s and Native Americans in the United States before 1924, are starved and killed without compunction.

Communities must have written and unwritten (customary) laws that strictly and thoroughly regulate violence and callousness.  These laws must be based on a principle of equality before the law, which requires at least some degree of economic equality, because otherwise the rich will simply buy their way out of enforcement.  Laws must be based on the principle that violence is the last resort in dealing with any problem other than direct personal attack.  They must also strictly forbid activity that destroys many solely to benefit a few, such as big dams, engineered famines, and exposure of impoverished workers or families to pollution.  There must be legal requirements to rehabilitate both victims and lawbreakers.

Communities must extinguish specific bad behaviors by specific rules, but they go on to encourage general good behaviors and ideals by more broad appeals to morality.

 

Rights

 

The morality enshrined in the Constitution is based on the theory of equal rights.  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 this and other 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 dinosauric 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.

 

Immediate Needs

 

Several obvious things need doing in the United States to accomplish any of these goals.  Among these are: making campaign statements sworn testimony to prevent outright lying, ensuring voting rights, ending gerrymandering and voter suppression, getting big money out of politics and making all political money fully transparent, fighting corruption, saving the environment, and cracking down on hate crimes and incitement of them.

Freedom of speech must be defended, but does not include direct incitement to violence, or libel, or false advertising.  These provide enough of a platform to allow us to ban campaign lies, Fox News-style public lying for evil ends, and direct rabid hatred that cannot help but lead to violence.  A great deal of “hate speech”—ordinary racist rhetoric, for instance—must be protected, because if it is banned then those in power will ban anything that annoys them.  This is a “slippery slope” argument that is quite true.  We have hundreds of years of experience, in every realm from religion to education to politics to community “civility,” to prove it.

We must ban subsidies as much as possible, and certainly subsidies to maintain dinosaur industries that cost more than they produce. We must block the chain from lobbyist to “regulator”; those who lobby for a polluting industry can never be allowed to regulate it.  Above all, we must take actual social and environmental costs—the hard cash people lose—into account in all social and political accounting.  Oil is profitable only because its real costs are passed on as externalities.  Many calculations have shown that gasoline would cost hundreds of dollars per gallon if those costs were internalized.  (For more, see Anderson 2010.)

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.  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. irrationality; 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.

Another need is for proactive positive action, and that requires a vision of the Good and an ability to enjoy.  Cowardly defensiveness destroys enjoyment; it causes anhedonia.  If one can openly enjoy something, one is already moving toward the good.  It is natural for the social animals we are to want others to enjoy and to share in our enjoyments.  Puritans and constant complainers are notoriously easy to delude into genocidal evil.  Puritanism about anything—not just sex or alcohol—feeds the bad wolf.

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.  Feeding the bad wolf involves 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 for long.  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.

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.  Some young students report writing stories and poems surreptitiously because the schools discourage 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.

For having a decent world, and for having a future for the world, we must 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.

 

 

 

 

Appendix: Special Topics

 

Freedom of speech is most at risk.  The Trump administration is attacking the media in exactly the way Hitler did in the 1930s.  Unfortunately, some of the misguided “progressive” camp is going after the media too, in the name of suppressing “hate speech.”  There are classic problems with this, all identified by the Founding Fathers, and by Tom Paine and John Stuart Mill.

Since the people in power will naturally be the ones doing the censoring, all opposition to those in power will soon be censored, and everything that supports them will be permitted, no matter how vile it is.  This is, in practice, the greatest reason why censorship is generally bad.

Hate speech is in the eye of the beholder.  No definition can be tight enough to stop people from insisting that what they say is not hate speech, and what their opponents say is always hate speech no matter how nicely phrased.  (Politeness can be a way of subtly maintaining white privilege, for instance.)

Hate speech can be educative–if not the speech itself, then from the fact that people say it, believe it, and act on it.

Suppressing speech drives it underground, where it spreads like wildfire—as censored things always do—and is attractive simply because it was suppressed.  There is an Arab saying that “if you forbid people from rolling camel dung into little balls with their fingers, they would do it, because if it is forbidden there must be something good about it.”  Moreover, suppressing speech makes the suppressed people into instant martyrs, no matter how unsavory they seemed before.

Last, it is immoral to shut other people up because you happen to dislike what they say.  They have a right to their opinions and their mouths.

If what they say is downright libel, or a direct call to violence, or a lie that directly leads to physical harm to people (like incitement to murder), that is something else.  Yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre is too, and inciting to riot is dicey; some hate speech falls into that category.  Above all, lying under oath is properly forbidden.  It has been suggested that campaign speech should be sworn testimony, at least when facts are stated, and thus lies like Trump’s would be illegal.  We also have no freedom to disclose proprietary secrets, or to plagiarize.  Freedom is not a matter of absolute freedom; it is a matter of considering others’ rights.  However, the wise activist errs on the side of liberty.

All this we learned in the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in the 1960s, but it has all been said before, ever since Voltaire and Jefferson.

Similar conclusions apply to freedom of press, assembly, and religion.  However, religion has now been so thoroughly abused as a cover for political campaigning and even for money-laundering and profiteering that it must be restricted.  Taxing the churches seems an inescapable necessity if the US is to flourish.  Politics is probably protected speech, up to a point, but outright campaigning—with donations of laundered or illegally-gained money—is banned in the US by the Johnson Rule.  It is inappropriate for churches and temples.

Preachers who are clearly in it for the money rather than the souls are all too common, and tax laws must recognize this.  The problem is not just one of politics; the rapidly escalating religious hate that has swept the world, and notably the United States, in the last generation is to a very large degree a product of preaching for money.  Corrupt and evil men posing as preachers find that the easiest way to make it pay is to preach hate and right-wing politics.  This is the story of ISIS and the Taliban as well as of Trump’s preacher claque.

Thus, cleaning up the institution of religion would seem to be a part of assuring liberty of conscience.  Above all, though, liberty of conscience must be preserved.

 

Tolerance, the most desperately needed and vitally important civic virtue, is also under an astonishing amount of attack from the left as well as the right.

It really should need no defense.  Many of the same considerations as those above will apply.

If you do not tolerate others, they will not tolerate you.  They may not even if you do tolerate them, but, in general, hate breeds hate, acceptance breeds acceptance.

We are all in this together.  A functioning society has to grow, change, and build, and can do that only by unified effort, mutual aid, and solidarity.  The alternative is mutual destruction.  The dominant group may win for a while by doing others down, but it merely hurts itself—first by losing those other groups and whatever they can offer, but second by starting a spirit of hate and rivalry that inevitably tears up the dominant group itself, in due course of time.

As usual, there are limits.  Obviously, we do not want to tolerate rape, murder, or robbery.  The argument is for tolerating people as individuals—the essential personhood behind whatever unacceptable behavior they may sometimes present.  They deserve fairness and consideration, but if they are acting to harm others, they must be stopped.  Toleration of ideas is a good; we need to argue and negotiate and work them out.  Toleration of specific behaviors is allowable only in so far as those behaviors do not actively and unnecessarily harm people.  Not all harm to people is bad.  Plato and Aristotle were already pointing out 2400 years ago that surgeons “harm” people for their own good.  One wants to minimize hurt, but some pain is necessary.

In short, tolerance is a major goal, but must be qualified by common sense.  None of this affects tolerating people as human beings, or, for that matter, tolerating other life forms.  Essential acceptance of living beings, simply because they are fellow travelers on the planet, is the basic and essential need of a functioning society.

It is therefore unacceptable to hate or reject anyone because of skin color, ethnicity, language, history, or the like.  No morality can justify that.  Total personal rejection of anyone for any reason is unacceptable.  We may have to kill a person in self-defense, but we are not given license to hate that individual simply for being.  We are also not given license to kill off his entire ethnic group just because he attacked us.  We know that “races” are not biological entities, and that all human groups are pretty much identical in potential, but even if we did find a group that was—say—less intelligent by some measure than the average, we would morally have to pay them the same respect and treatment as everyone else.

This is the real underpinning of the classic Enlightenment virtues: liberty, equality, fairness, justice as fairness, and civil behavior in civil society.  Never mind that the Enlightenment was financed by slavery and colonialism.  The point is that much of its content was explicitly directed against slavery and class discrimination.  No one in the history of the world had opposed slavery in general until 18th-century religious thinkers, largely Quakers, did so.   Fairness means serious attention to disadvantaged groups, not just even-handed treatment of all.  Equality before the law has been in sorry shape under Trump, with flagrant favoring of whites and rich people ove the rest.  With the Attorney General an open racist, nothing but trouble can be expected.  That way lies genocide and nothing else.

 

This brings us to solidarity:  Mutual aid, mutual support, mutual empowerment and strengthening.             It worked for the labor movement and for the old-time Democrats; disunion, carefully nurtured by the right wing and now by the far left, has led to the decline of both those institutions.  The war between Clinton and Sanders supporters took down Clinton in 2016, and will guarantee a Republican gain in the congressional elections of 2018 if it is not resolved.

A major part of this is civility.  We are getting farther and farther from civil discourse.  The right wing is usually the leader and always the most successful in extreme, exaggerated, intemperate, and insulting remarks, and we should leave that to them.  We always lose if we try that tactic.

We can move on to the four C’s—civility, caring, compassion, and considerateness—and the three R’s: Respect, reasonableness, responsibility.  Those last three alone would fix the US’ problems if applied consistently.  We need to move beyond mere tolerance.  Compassion and caring for others is are learned skills that should be taught.  They too do not just happen, nor does modern life encourage them.  They should be taught in schools, workplaces, and elsewhere.

 

Another value in extreme danger under the Trump administration is education.  His Secretary of Education opposes the whole idea of education, in the usual sense, and totally opposes public education.  She is systematically planning to minimize schooling and turn it into indoctrination in right-wing views.  We need the exact opposite: education to produce genuinely better people—people who are not hateful bullies, but who want to help others.

Americans are not getting the type of education they need.  This would be one that 1) teaches civics, including the Constitution and a non-whitewashed US history; 2) teaches actual science and how one can tell falsehoods and investigate truth; 3) teach the young about the depth and complexity of human emotions.  Humanistic education these days runs too heavily to comic books and other media that may be well enough in themselves, but do not have the sustained engagement with human feelings and thoughts that one gets from Shakespeare, Cao Xueqin, Dostoievsky, Thomas Mann, or Toni Morrison.  Serious music seems to have disappeared from most people’s lives; again, whatever is true or not about “quality,” music of Victoria or Beethoven engages much more deep and complex emotions than the popular stuff.  Whatever one likes or feels is appropriate, people need more insights into humanity than they get from American popular culture.  A reasonable order of teaching children would be starting them with civil behavior (considerate, respectful, sharing; responsible reasonable), then going on to teach compassion and helpfulness because we are all in this together and must follow something like the Golden Rule.  This should be done along with reading, writing, history, and math, if we are to survive.

 

This brings up science and environment.  The Trump administration, including the Republicans in Congress, have launched a full-scale war against both.  They do not stop with dismissing science that is embarrassing to their corporate donors, such as research on climate change and pollution.  They have attacked everything from conservation science to Darwinian evolution.  This is perhaps the area where the Republican base—giant primary-production firms, racists, and right-wing religious extremists—shows itself most clearly.  “Scientific” racism and creationism are now supported; the genuine science that disproves these is attacked.  Budget cuts to basic science and to science education are planned; they are serious enough to virtually destroy both.  Republicans realize that promoting such a wide anti-scientific agenda—climate change denial, claims that pesticides are harmless to humans, anti-vaccination propaganda, anti-evolutionism, racism, and so on—can only succeed if the entire enterprise of science is attacked.  The whole concept of truth is a casualty, with the calls for “alternative facts.”  Ideas of proof, evidence, data, and expertise are regarded as basically hostile to Republicanism.

Clearly, it will be national suicide ot allow this to go on.  Not only is further scientific research necessary to progress; a government that makes policy in defiance of the facts of the case will not survive.  We have already been afflicted with Zika, MRSA, and a host of other germs because of indifferent attention to public health.  Rising sea levels are eating away at coastlines.  Bees and other critically important insects are disappearing.  Foreign policy made in a fact-free environment has devastated the Middle East.  The future will be incalculably worse.  Attention to science education, moral education, and humanistic education remains small.

Part of this is environmental concern, and there we need to draw on traditional moralities.  Most cultures, worldwide, have solved the problems of sustainability—usually by teaching respect for all beings.  Children absorb this at a very young age.  They go on to remember that trees, fish, grass, and future humans all need to be regarded as worthy of consideration—to be used only as necessary and to be protected for future uses or simply to keep them alive.  The western world has long been an outlier, worldwide, by treating resources as things to destroy without a second thought.

With a proper spirit of respect, we will be able to preserve species and environments and to avoid destroying the environment with pollutants and excessive construction.  In the short run, we will have to fall back on laws.  The framework existing as of 2016 was inadequate but was a good start; it is now lost, and we will have to start from scratch, hopefully with better laws to be designed in future.  There are countless books on solving the environmental crisis, and to go further into it here would be tedious.  What matters is recognizing that we must think of sustainability and respect.

 

Guns:

I support the Second Amendment, but it is subject to qualifications, just as the other amendments are.  Free speech does not include libel or inciting violence.  Freedom of religion does not extend to human sacrifice.  Similarly, freedom to bear arms does not extend to allowing everyone to bear any arms under any circumstances.

It stands to reason that children and mentally ill persons should not have access to firearms (except older children under adult supervision in training contexts).

Evidence shows that domestic abusers and people who commit intimate partner or friend violence are high risks (see e.g. the Sutherland Springs shooter).  Anyone convicted of these offenses should not be allowed to own or have access to a firearm.

Automatic weapons, bump stocks, AR-15s, and other weapons whose only purpose is killing people (especially in large numbers) should be banned from ordinary civilian ownership.

There should be a great deal more emphasis on gun safety and proper use.  There should be a great deal less talk about “good guys with guns” as solutions to problems.  Too many hostile, aggressive people (mostly white males, as it happens) think they are good guys, and solve their problems by mass shooting.  It has become obvious that these are copycat crimes, or at least crimes that follow a clear pattern of solving personal problems by mass murder.

We also need to study the whole issue scientifically.  The government ban on studying firearm-related issues must end.

 

Democratic cooperation:

The Democrats must unite, first of all, before doing anything else.  The current disunion (routinely described in the media as a “circular firing squad”) is suicidal.  Democrats will never win any close elections until they at least vote for each other.

Then, obviously, appealing to the former base—the great working class—is the next most important thing to do.  Democrats are perceived, with much reason, to have forsaken the workers to pursue other issues, many of which are of interest mainly to well-to-do, educated urbanites.  Populist issues like health care and tax fairness should be foregrounded.

Third is getting out the vote.  This should be obvious, but Democrats have failed to do it for the last several elections.  Money is spent on lavish media campaigns—not terribly effective—instead of the proven doorbell-ringing and precinct phoning and activism.

Fourth is a concentrated fight against voter suppression and gerrymandering.  Again, this should be obvious, but Democratic officials have been surprisingly quiet about it.

Fifth, I think, is more aggressive calling out the Trump administration on their constant lies and misrepresentations, and above all naming names of their funders and backers who are really calling the dishonest shots—the Koch brothers on global warming, for instance.

There are many other issues I could name, but those five, in order, seem to me the key ones.  Without attention to these five, the Democratic party is finished, and the US will be a one-party nation.

 

Global warming:

There is now no question that the world is warming rapidly, and that human-released greenhouse gases are the main reason.

There is still considerable question how much of the warming is natural; the world has been warming for purely natural reasons since about 1800.  There is also some question as to just how fast the process is going.  Among qualified, responsible scientists, Michael Mann is a good example of the more radical end of the spectrum (the world is warming fast, and it’s almost entirely our fault).  Judith Curry anchors the skeptical end.  They are both competent, qualified scientists.  My reading (I am quite literate in this field and can judge with some professional competence) is that both are a bit too committed to their own positions, and look hard for confirming evidence.  So I assume the truth is in the middle somewhere.

The outright denialist positions are now apparently monopolized by public-relations people working for fossil fuel corporations.  (There is a long list of books and articles documenting this.)  Since not only all scientists, but all persons who have spent much time outdoors over more than a couple of decades, must admit that global warming is occurring, the denialists have fallen back on saying that it’s happened before.  Indeed it has; we know the causes, which were either the earth changing its tilt in regard to the sun (so the sun more effectively warmed the earth) or natural releases of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane.  The most dramatic well-known episode of that was a massive outpouring of CO2 from volcanoes, about 50 million years ago.  The Eocene world warmed rapidly and dramatically, and stayed warm for about 200,000 years.  Then it cooled so fast that trees growing in the high Arctic froze in place.  Explorers unthinkingly used some of them for firewood, only later discovering that their firewood was 50 million years old!  We are now releasing quantities of greenhouse gases comparable to those released by the volcanoes.

The immediate consequences include slow but sure sea level rise, and increase in global temperatures to the point where major changes in biota and in human lives will occur.  In a bit of karma, the world’s main oil producing region, the lowland Middle East, will become uninhabitable in a few decades, as air temperatures soar into the 180s.  Sea level rise has so far been slower than many predicted (Judith Curry has not failed to point this out), but it is happening, and will swamp the world’s coasts eventually.

No one knows where this will end.  There is no reason to expect that the earth will not suffer the fate of Venus, with surface temperatures in the hundreds of degrees.

The fastest and most effective way to deal with this is by leaving or restoring natural vegetation, especially forests.  That alone could blot up 20% of atmospheric carbon, given quite possible scenarios.  Other agricultural changes in the direction of less fuel-intensive, more biointensive farming would greatly help also.  There is a long literature on this, some reviewed in: Griscom, Bronson; Justin Adams; Peter Ellis; Richard Houghton; Guy Lomax; et al.  2017.  “Natural Climate Solutions.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114:11645-11650.

Ultimately, the solution must extend to clean power; power generation for electric grids, transportation, and industry accounts for the other 80% of greenhouse gas release.

The denial industry has been financed by the large fossil-fuel corporations, who have hired public-relations firms and in-house scientists.  The Koch brothers are the most conspicuous organizers and funders of the effort, but ExxonMobil, Shell, and other firms have been involved.

 

Intolerance

Racism and religious bigotry are more open now than they have been since the 1960s or perhaps even the 1920s.  However, the real underlying problem seems to be a more general increase in hostility and antisocial aggression.  We have mass shootings in which the victims are country music fans (Las Vegas), Baptist churchgoers (Texas), Walmart customers, and other ordinary Americans—more on the conservative white Republican side than otherwise.  By far the greatest number of mass-murder and terrorist killings in recent years have been of this sort; very few are either Islamic-extremist or otherwise religiously or racially motivated.  Ordinary murders are also increasing again after years of decline.

It thus seems that there is a major need for calming speeches and for ideas on how to reduce violence and antagonism in general.  Certainly, we still need to combat racism, and to defend freedom of religion, especially freedom from bullying in the name of religion.  We need even more to combat overall hostility.

 

Health

All other developed countries, and many less developed ones, now have government health care systems: socialist, single-payer, or government-insured.  All these systems work better than the US system, but every normal measure: life expectancy, days lost to work, maternal mortality, infant mortality, and coping with illnesses in general.  One partial exception: Some other countries have incidence of obesity, diabetes, and metabolic disorders comparable to the US.  In any case, the data are in: the US mix of government, private insurance, and private or religious health care is a disaster.  American pay twice as much as Europeans for vastly inferior care.  The only reasonable solution is to expand Medicare and Medicaid to cover everyone, while also expanding the CDC and other government agencies that deal with health.

Health education is another problem, as is the level of nutrition in virtually all environments in the US (and, in this case, most of the rest of the world also).

Research should add more work on prevention and education to the ongoing research on actual pathology and treatment.  We are not doing enough to prevent conditions like substance abuse.   We are not doing enough to stop pollution and clean up polluted environments.

 

Endangered Species

The Endangered Species Act has been under permanent attack by Republicans since it was proposed.  The ostensible reason is that the act saves worthless weeds and bugs at the expense of human interests.  The real reason is that it protects habitat that corporate interests want to use.

Balancing environmental protection against immediate use is always difficult, and requires much more attention than it usually receives, but in this case there should be no question.  “Extinction is forever.”  Once a species is extinct, it can never be brought back (despite recent claims for reconstruction through DNA—still merely a vision).  Most of the species proposed for protection are economically and ecologically valuable.  A few “weeds and bugs” do get protection, but they are probably more important than they look.  We still have no idea what is important in nature.  Sometimes, loss of an apparently minor species has caused meltdown of a whole ecological system.  Beyond mere utility, there is an issue of respect for life and living things.  Individuals can be replaced; species cannot.

We also need a mechanism for moving quickly to protect species that collapse suddenly.  A new pesticide, an epidemic, a rampantly multiplying introduced pest, or an ill-considered human action can rapidly change a species from common to endangered.

 

Conservation

The need for environmental protection and conservation is now obvious to everyone except certain giant corporate interests, who persist in seeing everything natural as a problem to be eliminated.  Even far-right activists admit a need for some action.  Sustainability of resource use is obviously necessary when at all possible, given the rapid expansion of US population and economic activity.  Some things will inevitably be lost; we need to restore a great deal to make up for that.

Anti-pollution rules, wise use rules, and conservation in general are under full and total attack by the few corporate interests, however.  This has led to some extreme rhetoric on all sides.   Always, the worst problem is the fossil fuel industry, which not only causes most of the pollution and global warming, but is fighting for its life against cheaper, more efficient, ecologically preferable energy sources.  It now survives thanks to enormous taxpayer subsidies, so it plows vast sums into lobbying and into spreading disinformation.  The amount this industry spends on those activities could very possibly finance a full-scale conversion to clean energy.

One huge problem that is widely ignored is loss of farmland.  Soil conservation has been quite effective in the US in recent years, leading to complacency.  The real problems now are urbanization and pollution.  Vast areas of productive soil and waters are lost to these.  California has urbanized almost a third of its farmland, including almost all the very best land, in the last two centuries.  Within my memory, “Silicon Valley” (the San Jose Valley) was probably the most productive orchard land in the world.  It now has no orchards at all.  Nothing is being done to halt the steady conversion of the best land to suburbs and parking lots.  Other states suffer less, but the problem is nationwide (and worldwide).

Conversely, there are some reasons to pull back on Obama’s new national monuments, and rather more reasons to look for more due process in future.  Obama declared vast areas of mixed-use land as national monument, without local consultation or input, and with some disregard for established interests.  In general, one can only sympathize with land protection, but more local input is highly desirable for both pragmatic and democratic reasons.

Forestry has also suffered from a see-saw battle between lock-down preservation and totally destructive and wasteful clearcutting.  Wiser solutions (reforestation, controlled burning, thinning, etc.) have been well known for over 100 years.  They are too rarely invoked today.  A scan of satellite photographs of Oregon is instructive:  tiny pockets of overcrowded locked-down preserves, surrounded by vast moonscapes of badly recovering clearcuts.  Oregon has lost most of its songbirds, as well as its forestry futures.  There is a desperate need to maintain more wilderness, for reasons that have filled many whole books, but that would need to include some burning to preserve actual wild conditions.

Specific conservation areas of major concern:

Biodiversity and endangered species preservation

Forest management: sustainable logging, controlled burning, disease control, etc.

Grasslands, wetlands and streams, brushlands, deserts:  sustainable management

Agriculture: getting away from deadly chemicals, continuing to fight soil erosion, saving farmland from urbanization, reducing meat and increasing vegetables, etc.

Pollution

Urban sprawl and urban crowding; urban blight; lack of parks, markets, etc.

Aesthetics

Park and recreation areas that are actually accessible to everyone

Environmental education

Regulating imports: banning endangered species and hunting trophies, controlling dangerous pest importation, banning palm oil, banning or discouraging other ecocidal crops, etc.

 

The Republican tax cuts would cause a massive and steadily increasing flow of wealth from the poor and middle class to the super-rich.  Cutting tax deductions that the middle class uses, while maintaining those for the rich, accompanies huge cuts to the highest brackets of taxing and trivial and temporary cuts to the rest of us.  The resulting rise in national debt will be managed by cutting Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other programs that transfer wealth to the less fortunate.  The worst problem with that, from an economic point of view, is that money in those programs is immediately spent—it goes directly into circulation, to buy goods and services.   The rich, in contrast, hoard their money, waiting for ideal investment possibilities.

This is bad enough in the current good times, but Republican policies will certainly cause a depression in the near future.  At that point the less affluent will lose their jobs and savings, and the rich will have every incentive to move their wealth offshore—investing in other countries or stashing their money in tax shelters like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.  Other countries will be developing while the US is depressed; hence the rich will invest in the other countries.

By that time, also, education will have been devastated by Republican policies and funding cuts (see Kansas, currently leading in that area).  There will be no pool of young, educated people to re-grow the economy.  The depression will feed on itself, bringing the United States down, and letting other nations pick up the lead.

 

My Constitution if I Ran the World

First, the standard freedoms, including all human and civil rights, guarantee of impartial justice (especially impartial to dollars) and rights to organize.  Explicitly, money is not speech.

Next, full rights to a decent environment—minimal pollution and waste, no subsidies for primary production, preservation of as much of nature as possible given the need to maintain a decent standard of living.

Next, no offensive war; war only to defend the country from direct attack, but that can cover going after terrorists abroad.

Then, firm graduated tax rate, written into the constitution.  No tax exemptions except for legitimate business and work expenses, and actual, effective charities. No exceptions for churches, for “charities” that do not spend over 80% of their incomes on actual charity work (as opposed to “overhead” and administration), or political outfits masquerading as “non-profits.”  Offshore tax havens and the like would be absolutely illegal, with extreme penalties.

No subsidies, no favoring specific businesses, minimal restriction of business and trade, but firm regulations such that harm and cheating do not happen.

Free universal health care (free up to a point—small deductibles possible, and no free discretionary treatment such as plastic surgery for looks).

Free universal education with arts as well as sciences in the schools.

Savage penalties for corruption, which would be defined to include donating campaign funds beyond a set low limit.

Universal national service: a year in the military, a year doing environmental work, then a year of social work.  Lifetime emergency call-up, as in Switzerland.

Discouragement of hate and hate speech.  Citizens see their duty as opposing it and damping it down.  No penalties, but extreme, savage penalties for violating civil rights and for hate crimes.

Campaign fund regulations, especially in sensitive things like judicial elections.

Aesthetics encouraged; national conservation in museums, sites, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Barbara Anderson, Christopher Chase-Dunn, Peter Grimes, Hollie Nyseth Brehm, Jennifer Skornik, and Andrea Wilson for ever-valuable comments.

 

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