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We are Good. They are Evil.

It is impossible to be objective about notions of good and evil. When we read or hear those words we automatically slap the “good” label on our chest and the “bad” label on the other guy’s. We likewise elevate the groups to which we belong to a higher level of moral purity. When we are confronted with irrefutable evidence that members of our group acted badly (e.g., for Americans, the Mai Lai massacre), we are shamed because we feel “that’s not us.” However, if similar acts are committed by members of an out group, our reaction is hostile. We think, “They” are different from “us.” “They are evil.”

We bristle at the notion of moral relativism because we know our values are the right values. Individually and collectively, we are strapped into “I am right” and “we are right” psychological straightjackets. Believing we are right gives us a survival advantage by pumping us up with the moral indignation that justifies our punishment of those who offend us. The greater our moral anger, the fiercer our response and the more vulnerable our adversaries to our wrath.

As Michael Shermer points out in his important book, The Science of Good and Evil : Why People Cheat, Share, Gossip, and Follow the Golden Rule competition between groups for limited resources led to intergroup aggression and selfishness among humans as well as other primates. Shermer states, “in measures of between-group violence, humans are more like aggressive and territorial chimpanzees.” However, this same between group competition for limited resources led to within-group cooperation and selflessness. Again, Shermer: “In measures of within group violence, humans are more like peaceful and loving bonobos.” In these respects, we humans are, as Shermer states, simply “domesticated primates.”

Shermer explains how morality evolved as a mental mechanism with adaptive functions. He advocates a “hierarchical theory of evolution,” acknowledging selection at both the group and individual levels. Shermer cites Charles Darwin’s observation:

There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members, who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.

At the individual level, a reciprocal “tit for tat” behavioral strategy evolved as a neurological adaptation. The pride we feel when we think we have acted nobly is likewise biologically determined. Shermer says memorably, “we cooperate for the same reason we copulate–because it feels good.” Research at Emory University, described by Shermer, supports the idea that acts of cooperation stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain. In prisoner’s dilemma games, the areas of the brains of cooperators that lit up in functional magnetic-resonance-imaging brain-scans were the “same areas activated in response to such stimuli as desserts, money, cocaine, attractive faces, and other basic pleasures.”

We experience a different type of satisfaction when we express our moral indignation at wrongdoers. When we are convinced that the perpetrator is “evil” (think of that famous axis), we can feel that our hostility is truly warranted. The attribution of evil to our enemies justifies our aggression. For example, the more times we are told how nasty Saddam is, the better some of us feel about our invasion of Iraq. Shermer states, “good and evil are human constructs, but the sense of being right or wrong, in the emotions of righteousness and pride, guilt and shame, is a human universal that had an evolutionary origin.” Not only does cooperating with others enhance survival by promoting reciprocity, but as Shermer notes, “being a real cooperator is better than being a fake cooperator, because being genuine about cooperating more readily convinces others of the genuineness of the action.”

Shermer rightly advises that we dispense with the “myths of pure good and pure evil,” and think of human behavior in terms of “actions we like and actions we do not like.” Our belief in free will, which underlies the myths of good and evil, is likewise a reflection of self-deception. All events, including the ones taking place in our brains when we make choices, are the inevitable consequences of prior conditions. We “feel as if we are acting freely as uncaused causers, even though we are actually causally determined.” To a large extent, our feeling of freedom arises out of our ignorance of the ultimate causes of our behavior.

Shermer cites cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker’s supporting argument that the “brain is wired to ‘feel’ like it is making choices.” Our brains evolved as subjectively-experienced choice-making modules that make us feel free. Shermer sees “free will as a useful fiction” and advises that we act “as if” we are free. He asks, “Why not act as if you do have free will, gaining the emotional gratification and social benefits that go along with it?”

Because of this choice-experiencing module implanted in our brains, we intuitively reject the idea that we don’t have free will. Paradoxically, we don’t need to follow Shermer’s advice to act “as if” we are free, because we already feel free. However, Shermer makes another astute suggestion. He says “I act as if I have free will but you don’t.” By acting as if you don’t have free will, I can be much more tolerant; after all, you can’t help yourself. Of course, I can still be displeased by your behavior and try to change it, but I cannot blame you, because your behavior is simply the end result of an infinite and intricate web of causal forces preceding it. I can stop wasting time and energy indulging in self-righteous indignation. My determined, but rational prefrontal cortex can overrule my determined irrational amygdala. In a more poetic Nietzschean metaphor, I can “shake off with a single shrug many vermin that eat deep into others.”

Shermer’s presentation of what he describes as “a new theory of provisional ethics” is much more elaborate than what I have sketched here. Readers’ responses will vary according to their own Weltanschauungs. However, what resonated most with me was the admonition to act as if you have free will, but others don’t. Think about it.