The extent of evil

This post is an attempt to piece together my thoughts on the role of what we might call "wrong", or "bad", human behaviour - not just things that are actually called "crime" and subject to civic penalties, but things that though not necessarily illegal, cause harm.

Someone suggested to me recently that tax avoidance should be "stamped out". He wanted such severe controls on economic behaviour by firms and individuals that avoiding tax became impossible: among other things he wanted strict capital controls so that money could not flow out of the country into tax havens, and severe penalties for tax avoidant behaviour. I have used the term "avoidance" here deliberately: the narrower term "evasion" applies to practices that are actually illegal, but my correspondent was not referring to those. He meant any activity that deprived government of what he considered its rightful income.

At the opposite extreme are a number of people who have suggested to me that taxation is theft and therefore inherently wrong. To them, money that they have earned or inherited is rightfully theirs, and government should defend their title to it rather than deprive them of it. Avoiding tax is a legitimate defensive response to a predatory government that seeks to take their property from them by force.

Both of these positions claim the moral high ground: each claims that the position of the other is "wrong" and the behaviour that the other supports is "bad". This is a logical impossibility. They can't both be right.

The sheer impossibility of reconciling such opposed positions leads society to impose laws, which may be arbitrary. I've had numerous arguments with people who argue that there is no need for government to impose laws, because the only laws needed are natural ones which can be self-policed. Natural laws, apparently, are the right to own property and the right not to suffer violence (in all its forms, including non-physical coercion). Well, we all might agree with this....but a look at nature gives the lie to the idea that these are in any respect "natural" laws. The "natural" law - the law of the jungle, if you like - is that my right to property is limited by my ability to defend that property from predators, including others of my own species. When something comes along that is bigger and stronger than I am, I must relinquish my property, either voluntarily (to avoid damage) or through violent coercion which may result in my injury or death. How I obtained that property is of no consequence: however hard I worked for it, it is not "mine". And the definition of "property" in jungle law is in direct contrast to our modern social mores. "Habeas corpus" does not apply in the jungle, at least not to females or young: in most mammalian species, males fight over the right to "own" females, and many males kill young that are not sired by them.

Much of the behaviour that we consider "wrong" among human beings actually stems from the fact that we are mammals and we naturally behave much like other species of mammal - seizing and defending territory, fighting for ownership of food and females, attacking people who get in our way or have something that we want. We could construct society on this basis, and in fact when government fails, that is how society tends to organise itself: leaders appear who are big and strong enough to defend property, and others attach themselves to those leaders in a subservient role in return for protection. Subservience may involve submitting to violent and (to our eyes) abusive practices: the "right to rape" is a common attribute of warlords.

But our modern "civilised" societies are constructed differently, and our rules of behaviour explicitly forbid behaviour that is apparently completely natural. The Ten Commandments, upon which law is based not only in Western societies but also in Islamic countries, specifically forbid murder, taking property from others (theft, adultery*) and encouraging others to kill or take property from someone ("bearing false witness"). Even the natural DESIRE to take from others is forbidden ("you shall not covet"). Property rights are indeed very important: our society hangs together through respect for the property rights of others, including their right to control their own body, and when this respect fails, the very fabric of society is damaged. But property rights are not in any way "natural", and violating them is only "wrong" because we agree, as a society, that it is wrong. And under some circumstances, we suspend our own rules. Killing in war is an acceptable form of murder: war itself is usually an attempt to take territory from others or regain territory previously lost to others. War is a fundamental violation of property rights.

Societies justify the suspension of property rights in war by demonising the opposing side. They become "less than human": myths circulate claiming that they indulge in all manner of vile behaviour that we - the "morally right" - would never dream of doing, would we? But we would, of course. In fact when we win, we do. The losers in war are often excluded from normal social rules long after the war itself is over: not only do they lose their external property, they lose their right to personal integrity. Slavery, often with associated abuse, is the traditional fate of a defeated people, but it is - like war - a fundamental violation of property rights.

But it is not just in war that people can be demonised. Distressed societies typically find minority groups to blame for their woes, and behaviour towards these groups can resemble that towards the losers in war. Hatred of particular minorities is whipped up by circulating myths about them that appear to show that they violate social rules. And that hatred can spill over to those who attempt to dispel those myths. Societies are not tolerant of people who challenge prevalent beliefs. Speaking the truth is a dangerous pastime.

In fact I am struck by how dangerous human societies are. Homo sapiens (in its social form) is the most lethal predator ever to walk the Earth. We are capable of wreaking destruction across large swathes of the planet: other species are justifiably frightened of us and we destroy ecological habitats whereever we go. We are even dangerous to ourselves. And yet.....we are capable of behaving differently. We can act in accordance with our instincts, or we can act differently. It is our choice. Our social and moral "values" are founded on the idea that we will generally choose NOT to act destructively, and our laws exist to protect society from people who choose to act destructively. At least that's the idea.

The problem is that we are blind to our own behaviour. We are quick to notice when others are acting in destructive ways, but not so quick to identify the same behaviour in ourselves. And at times we choose to ignore or override our ability to choose alternative courses of action. I recently watched the final programme in the documentary series "All watched over by machines of loving grace". I was struck by the way in which the definition of "human as machine" was used to justify acting on instinct rather than choice. The argument was that we are pre-programmed to act in a certain way and are not able to make meaningful choices about our own behaviour: the freedom to choose is an illusion because our behaviour is ALWAYS driven by instinct. This unbelievably depressing idea was reflected in the dark nature of the documentary: even choices that appeared good, and were done from the best of motives, only made matters worse. The implication was that there was no point in trying to do good, so we might as well just act out our basic instincts. Like Elphaba in "Wicked", we are justified in crying out "No good deed will I attempt to do again!"

But the "humans are machines" idea is merely the "humans are animals" argument dressed in a different fabric. And the "humans are animals" argument has long been used to justify all manner of bad behaviour: "I couldn't help it", "It's only natural", "I was acting on instinct".....All of these are excuses. "Human machine" is just as destructive a concept as "human animal". Both are a denial of humanity.

Humans are certainly capable of destructive behaviour. But as I noted above, we are also capable of choosing NOT to behave destructively. So we can "help it", it may be "only natural" but that doesn't make it right, "instinct" does not imply suspension of rational thought. All of us are tempted to do things that would deeply hurt others: all of us at times act out our desires in destructive ways. That doesn't mean that we should stop trying to make better choices: on the contrary, experiencing the consequences of our bad decisions creates an opportunity to learn what better choices would be, so that we don't make the same mistake again. At the social level, the desire of some to do good will sometimes be overwhelmed by the bad behaviour of others. But to abandon all attempts to "do good" because it's pointless is the policy of despair.

Which brings me back to the fundamental question that I posed (indirectly) at the start of this post. How do we decide what is "good"? I have no easy answers: society has struggled with this problem for all of time. Indeed it is in attempting to answer this question definitively that we make our worst errors. When we define some form of behaviour as "right" and everything else as wrong, we open the door to demonisation and dehumanisation of those who don't agree with us. The consequences can be terrible. Attempting to ensure that everyone obeys all the rules all the time is as destructive as having no rules at all. In fact a look at human history suggests that it may even be worse. The worst mass murders in history have been in totalitarian states which forcibly imposed arbitary rules and demonised those who did not, or could not, comply.

The desire to act in a way that does not harm others and is not destructive of the environment must come from within - it cannot be imposed from above. Social rules only work when the majority of people choose to obey them: if a majority choose NOT to obey a rule, it cannot be enforced without brutality. For example, the Catholic Church's ban on artificial methods of contraception is unenforceable: the majority of Catholics do not agree with it and the Church has no means of enforcing it. Even where there are severe penalties for breaking a particular rule, people still break it: murder still exists even when the penalty is death or life imprisonment. It is necessary to protect society from those who would break its rules, and society does try to persuade those who don't agree with the rules to conform, though I am wary of this - Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984 both paint horrible pictures of forcible "re-education" of people who disagree with rules. But imposition of rules always involves coercion and may involve violence. Completely "stamping out" what we regard as bad behaviour is impossible without behaving even worse ourselves.

And "stamping out" bad behaviour can be bad for those doing the stamping, too. Wherever there is productive economic activity, there is also crime. When we devote too much energy to preventing the crime, we also kill the economic activity associated with it - and we are actually the poorer for it. More fundamentally, when we kill or imprison those who disagree with us, we close down all debate, depriving us of an important brake on our own behaviour and a means of learning from our mistakes. There must be room within any society for disagreement over its rules: social rules need to change over time, and it is through engagement in debate that beliefs are challenged, prevailing orthodoxies changed and rules updated.

Evil is a natural characteristic of human beings, and the propensity to do evil - even unintentionally - extends throughout society. We fight it not by "stamping it out" when we see it in others, but first and foremost by critically examining our own motives and choosing behaviour that we believe to be right. The standards suggested by the major religions are a guide, though in my view they should not be blindly followed: much wrong has been done in the name of doing right according to religious standards....But in the end, our own consciences are our best guide, and our capacity for rational thought is our best defence against the extent of evil.

Related links:

Two takes on the Tyranny of Democracy - Coppola Comment
All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace: The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey - BBC (video)
Brave New World - Aldous Huxley (book - free to read)
No good deed - Wicked (video)
A voyage to Arcturus - Lindsay (synopsis)
On the callousness of the American right - Coppola Comment

* In a society in which women are regarded as the property of men, adultery is a form of theft and the penalties are always severe. In Western societies we no longer regard women as the property of men, so the definition of adultery has changed - we would now regard it as a breach of contract. But adultery remains a socially harmful behaviour: the consequences for children, in particular, can be severe. Marital breakdown is the single biggest cause of child poverty in Western societies.


  1. Good post. I like to think we are evolving into a less 'evil' society. War is now much less common in Western society (on our shores at least), hopefully as poorer countries become more advanced and democratic they will become safer places to be too.
    Increasing numbers of people becoming vegetarian (not me yet) and more interested in sustainability etc. We are slowly being bred away from our Pitbull natures into something a bit more Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, I'm guessing even some of them will bare their teeth at a tax bill though :)

  2. "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace" is the second Curtis documentary where he has completely misunderstood game theory and dangerously misrepresented the early writings of Dawkins (the selfish gene, extended phenotype, the blind watchmaker etc). If you massively simply game theory and ignore real world observations then you can dawn some pretty daft conclusions but good academics don't do that....

    This is dangerous because it misrepresents and maligns a significant and useful area of academic study... Its the equivalent of taking the most absurd writing of think tanks in defensive of "laissez faire" economics and saying all economics is useless!

    1. I thought Curtis was far too pessimistic, actually. But the trouble is that Curtis is not the only person who has misinterpreted, and nor is he the worst. An awful lot of people have used the ideas of Dawkins as an excuse for appalling behaviour. Saying "it's not me, it's my genes" is the equivalent of "the dog ate my homework". A lot of people want to evade taking personal responsibility for their actions, and Dawkins' ideas rather lend themselves to this. I doubt if Dawkins ever intended his work to be used in that way, though.

    2. The problem with "the selfish gene" is that there is a tendency for people to assume the content based on the title - and ironically much of the book is about the evolution of altruism in nature (albeit to service the "selfish genes").

      An any case whilst Darwinism is a scientific truth and offers some useful insights into the evolution of human nature, it is a terrible tool for structuring society. Below is a quote from Dawkins in the "Introduction to the 30th Anniversary Edition of 'the selfish gene'": -
      "One of the dominant messages of The Selfish Gene (reinforced by the title essay A Devils Chaplain) is that we should not derive our values from Darwinism, unless it is with a negative sign. Our brains have evolved to the point where we are capable of rebelling against our selfish genes. The fact that we can do so is made obvious by our use of contraceptives. The same principle can and should work on a wider scale"

    3. I remember that comment. I thought it was very perceptive of him. We are better than our genes.

  3. This is a great piece...opens up a lot of questions..this line struck me,because its very true.

    "The problem is that we are blind to our own behaviour. We are quick to notice when others are acting in destructive ways, but not so quick to identify the same behaviour in ourselves. "

    I m huge fan of Indian philosophy, offers one reason why this above statement to be the case...all the senses Eyes,Ears,Smell,Touch,Taste all face outwards, and the we sense the world externally...because we are constantly taking in external stimuli "our" natural bias is to cognitively try to understand from what we sense,which is outwards. Its very difficult to turn inside and use and develop the intellect to help make decisions due to the powerful nature of our senses.

    This book

    The Fall of The Human Intellect is very positive. It takes away the notion of the idea of the selfish gene or acting like machines within a fixed trajectory,but instead says it is the lack of development of our intellect which is the source of our growing pains...Intelligence is very different from Intellect and not to be confused. An example being a top scientist (highly intelligent) came to the author for he was unable to control his temper,drinking, relationship with his wife. The author pointing out that all the intelligence in the world could not stop him making bad and harmful decisions/actions...but how it was lack of intellect. A developed and strong intellect will gain control over the physical senses and the emotional mind and help in making decisions,avoid behaviours that are destructive to you and those around you.

  4. I doubt that the Ten Commandments are at the origin of modern law. Roman Law and maybe even Common Law predate the influence of biblical religions. Are you perhaps a follower of a biblical religion yourself, suffering from self-attribution bias on behalf of your entire community of belief? :-)

    More generally I think the opposition between the law of the jungle and modern law is somewhat artificial. To me, it's more a continuum, law encodes and scales "natural" instincts. Of course, to take a small example, the only natural instincts we have about property are about personal possessions, or space that we have direct usage of. So the various legal systems (including religions, which in many ways fulfil the same role of giving rules to social life) that have been developed vary around the edges, when the abstraction moves away from the core "natural" instincts, but otherwise most legal systems are pretty similar on what the big taboos are. Hence the Ten Commandments' rulings looking pretty much like Roman or Common Law, or probably Asian or Native American legal systems. From there it's easy to see how one tradition can claim they invented it first and everybody else copied it...

    You paint the law of the jungle as a world of rapist murderous warlords, but that's unlikely a warlord who murders or rapes indiscriminately ever lasted very long: people would change allegiance to a more accommodating competitor sooner or later. When warlords are nasty, they usually do so either with full strangers ("enemies"), or restricted classes at the edge of the group that are made into synthetic strangers ("slaves"). All this allows to justify suspending natural instincts against being bad to your own species (which all species that survived evolution have, a species where individuals are particularly keen on eating each other will basically last one generation), by artificially restricting the species to the tribe. Pretty much the same as what we see in modern societies with war, or people in politics who dehumanise the opposition groups.

    It seems to me the difference between tribal and modern law is primarily a question of scale: law liberates the warlord from having to settle all conflicts between their followers in person, hence enabling much larger and sophisticated tribes.

    1. I'm quite prepared to accept that in general law may come from other sources. However, I really don't think you can question the genesis of British law in Judaeo-Christian teaching, since Britain has been "Christian" for 1500 years but only established the present system of law within the last 1000 years or less. You may wish to recall that the present system of law was preceded by an explicitly religious system administered by the Church. As it was in most Western Christian countries.

      I don't think I have painted the law of the jungle as a world of "rapist murderous warlords" in your emotive sense. The "jungle" has rules of its own which are centred around the ability to hold property by exercising power - in the form of either the threat or the reality of violence. The consequences of exercising that power are that people may be killed, wounded or raped. It is not lawlessness - it is simply a different set of laws. The terminology you use is indicative of your own values: a "murderous rapist warlord" is not a criminal under jungle law, nor is he even behaving badly in the sense that we understand it in a modern civilised society. The point I was making is that those who claim that the right to hold property WITHOUT the threat or reality of violence is "natural law" don't understand how mammals behave.

      I am historically correct that the right to rape is de facto conferred on successful war leaders with respect to captives, and often with regard to women (and men) who are "voluntarily" attached to them as well. Where the king is concerned, servants and members of the court are fair game even though they are technically not slaves. What is the "droit du seigneur" if not the right to rape? That is why Ghengis Khan's DNA is so very widespread among present-day humanity.

      Rape is not a crime where the king is concerned: in a primitive autocratic society rape is a crime of theft against the men who own the women concerned (like adultery - see my footnote), not against the women themselves. As the king is the ultimate owner, he has not stolen anything from those women's menfolk.

      Obviously a warlord is only as secure as his ability to command loyalty among powerful followers, so he won't want to upset them. But he does in theory have the right to demand their property from them, including their lands and their women. The risk he runs in exercising this right is that they will overthrow him.

    2. I'm getting out of my depth but Wikipedia ("Common Law") claims with reference that in the 800s, Alfred the Great "attempted to blend in the Mosaic code, Christian principles, and Germanic customs dating as far as the fifth century." so I'd expect Common Law not to be exclusively a Christian thing. I guess we can agree it's a big melting pot.

      I'm similarly out of my depth on pre-modern rape law and practice, though I doubt that there were many primitive societies where rape was routinely OK, even for cases not breaking "male property" rules (were single orphan girls, or boys, or widow(er)s really a free for all?). I suspect reading ancient texts with modern specs can sometimes be misleading. I'm a big believer that most of the time observing the practice and coming to conclusions from there trumps observing the theory alone (same as with understanding monetary policy from operations trumps some of the textbook or institutional models).

      More generally, what a warlord could do, and the limits, seem similar to what a modern state can do. Whatever the book says, rulers (or societies as a whole) can always rewrite it, over the weekend or after the fact if need be. Laws help make customs a bit more sticky, and rulers more accountable, but ultimately a modern state, or more generally any social grouping, functions the same way as warlords: the practical limits of action are the tolerance of the stakeholders.

    3. Alfred the Great may well have done that, and it's fair to say that British law does still have Saxon customs, such as the jury system. But Britain was a Christian country at the time of Alfred the Great and the Church was very dominant even then. I can't see that the moral principles underlying the law come from anywhere other than Judaeo-Christianity, most likely with a Roman bias.

      Our understanding of property rights is very different from "jungle law". I have actually read quite a bit of research into the practices of older societies and believe me, violence and rape was surprisingly common and accepted in many cases, even in supposedly fairly "civilised" societies. Generally the more feudal and autocratic the society, the greater the level of violence towards junior members of society. It all helps to establish and maintain power dynamics. The difference I think is democracy: in a democratic society we expect to have a voice and we believe we have "rights" that are intrinsically ours. In an autocratic society we have no voice and no rights unless granted by the overlord, who is responsible for protecting us. It's a fundamentally different set-up from a modern democracy.

    4. Great post, argued from a rational and humanist perspective

  5. On pro-tax or anti-tax extremists, if they're not too low IQ you can usually demolish their argument by finding something in their own behaviour which contradicts their own belief system: maybe the anti-tax avoidance guy has a tax-friendly pension plan (which is really a form of tax avoidance), and the anti-tax guy can probably be caught having consumed government services without having paid for them (which is a form of not paying for stuff you consume, which these guys see as theft).

    Problem is most extremists are indeed usually of pretty limited intelligence and not amenable to logical reasoning without comprehensive retraining in the basics. As they are often in denial of their own ignorance, it's a tricky nut to crack.

  6. The rich usually get rich by exploiting the poor, as well as exploiting accountants so that they don't pay tax. Tax haven live by offering a discount on investments and savings and allowing "annonimity" to that users of tax havens can evade tax they otherwise would and should pay, it's wrong to suggest this could be evasion "it is evasion" and should be criminalised. the reason it is not, is because "money" or markets, now make all the rules, through puppet politicians who rely on market money for their troughs, which are then used to attain power. When the money system is transparent everywhere, then we can have a possible level playing field and good money will not disappear out of the system for the benefit of a few greedy hereditary's.
    Money should be used for the benefit of all in the community , not the 1%.

  7. Interesting summary: a few points, which you will probably agree with.
    This particular narrative is highly based on the traditional liberal view of rights -- for instance, in your transition from "property" in the natural world to property in the human realm, you repeat the traditional liberal account of the worker's or woman's rights over his/her body (and the fruits there-of). But, of course, this is merely a crude simplification by people like Locke, Mill, Berlin etc., and lawyers who wanted to replace historic social relations based on notions of loyalty and hereditary rights (or more properly fidelity, following Ute Frevert) with a civil code based on individual property rights. In reality, one's body and labour are not "property" but part of self, and therefore inalienable, whatever civil contract says. In this sense Gandhi is closer to Hobbes -- both essentially say that one ALWAYS has a choice, even when the sovereign has a gun to one's head. Obviously, droit de seigneur, or most other forms of rape, can be performed without even this extreme form of consent being given, but from the point of view of the perpetrator, using this property rights based approach actually facilitates rape, as the body is already conceptually separated from self. I doubt that Locke's forerunners -- like Hooker or Acquinas, for instance -- would have found it acceptable to conceive of rape in such terms, even as they themselves lived in a feudal age where the rights of the sovereign were seen to devolve from God.

    Alternative framings, such as theories of reciprocity in gift-giving, clan honour, Aboriginal restorative justice (e.g. sentencing circles) presume, in many cases, the primacy of the community, not only as a source of protection but as a foundation of identity (self). Christian morality, at least as conceived in the Gospels, is much closer to this than to the codification of the ten commandments. Jesus exhorts people, in line with Commandments 1 and 2, to love their the lord their god with all their heart, and all their mind, and all their soul. But then he explicitly substitutes for all the "property-based" commandments the stipulation that one should love one's neighbour as oneself. This is all very well for an individual, but the working out of this non-property based conception of self historically has often been quite as, if not even more, coercive as property-based liberal conceptions of society -- think of the coercive capacity of custom in traditional communities. Nonetheless it is certainly true that the tax cheat, whetever he or she may suppose, cannot live outside the support and dictates of the collective. Yet, the property-based view asserts that he or she already exists apart from the collective -- which to my mind biases the answer in favour of the tax cheat. Of course, the collective must determine what measures of redistribution are needed and justifiable, with the input of all members. This has two benefits: first, a better analysis of the genuine needs or entitlements of the individual is likely (and therefore a more accurate judgement of the disposition of REAL goods is possible), and second, a more accurate economic analysis is likely (e.g. does the authority REALLY need to tax to fund its activities -- clearly not as it issues its own money). So it is helpful to start this analysis from the point of the community, and only after consider the question from the point of view of individual property rights/ or as I would prefer to view them, "entitlements" as a community member.

  8. I think it may important to consider that much of modern law owes its provenance not to Christian tradition (for good or ill) but rather to Enlightenment conceptions of law associated with the rediscovery in the early modern era of Classical texts and law. Take for instance the concept of usurfructuary rights, borrowed by European, colonial, and American courts directly from Roman Law. Far from being a way of confirming property rights, since the Enlightenment era the concept has consistently been used by the powerful to alienate individuals and groups from their hereditary rights, property, and the fruit of their labour. As an example of this, I offer the doctrine of Terra Nullius, under which the land of the Americas, and other colonies, was deemed by British, French, and later American and Canadian courts, to have been temporarily provided, as usurfruct, to the original inhabitants of the land. This provided a "justification" for the "reclamation" of this land by the colonial powers. Much copyright law today operates in a similar fashion. However, Wikkipedia also notes that "[t]he oldest examples of usufruct are found in the Code of Hammurabi and the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses directed property owners not to harvest the edges of their fields, and reserved the gleanings for the poor", although that seems to be direct reversal of the applications I point to above.


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