Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side by Julia Shaw


How does one define “good” without a concept of “bad?”

Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side by Julia Shaw is a light, mostly superficial treatment of a dark topic. Shaw’s upbeat, contemporary and conversational writing style is enjoyable but at times detracts from the gravity of the topic.

At the core of the book is the author’s belief that there’s no such thing as evil — which requires some external sense of moral judgement or frame of reference — just humans who sometimes (often?) do bad things for a variety of reasons — biological, social, cultural and more.

“Because of what I consider an insurmountable problem of subjectivity, I think that neither humans nor actions should be labeled evil. Instead, I cannot help but see a complex ecosystem of decisions, cascades of influences, multifaceted social factors. I refuse to summarize all of this into a single hateful word, ‘evil.’”

It’s not an especially new concept — I’ve seen it covered more deeply (Cruelty, Taylor) and more enjoyably, (Perv, Bering) — nor does the author dig very deeply into the topic, but I still enjoyed her take on the subject, especially trying to tackle head on the issue how one defines “good” without a concept of “bad.”

“…not believing in evil as an objective phenomenon does not make me a moral relativist. I have strong views on what is objectively appropriate behavior and what isn’t. I believe in fundamental human rights. I believe that intentionally causing pain and suffering is inexcusable. I believe we need to take action when individuals violate the social contracts we make when we live as part of a society.”

There is a strong case to be made for existential humanism in this space, doing the hard work of accepting the lack of external value and instead creating an internal framework — or filter — that we can each use answer a simple question: Does my choice, my behavior, represent what I would wish all other people to do in a similar circumstance? It’s an approach that requires introspection and brutal honesty, and also falls apart in the face of actual mental health disorders. A clinically defined psychopath, for example, would simply lack the cognitive resources required to think that through. But, as Shaw notes:

“…knowing the various influences that can contribute to problematic behavior makes us more likely to identify those influences and to stop them from having their full effect. Understanding that we are all capable of much harm should make us more cautious and more diligent.”

It’s an approach that seems to be gaining ground as, at least for many of us, we recognize that not everyone has the same set of operating instructions and those who end up doing harm to others may lack control in the same way someone having a seizure lacks control. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to help protect them and others from acting on those impulses.

“When we start to scratch below their scary surface, even the worst killers turn out to be human beings. And, looking at the data, it seems that humans largely kill for the same reasons they do many other things – to find human connections, to protect their families, to achieve their goals, to acquire things they think they need. They do it to deal with basic human emotions like anger and jealousy, lust and greed, betrayal and pride.”

An oddly comforting and uplifting message emerges from this archeology of evil, as she navigates through everything from pedophilia to online bullying.

“This book seeks to inform and empower. When we understand what leads to harm, we can begin to fight against it. This involves taking action to stop harm, fighting against our own urges to do harm, and helping people who have done harm to get better. And whatever we stand for, fight for, feel for, we must never dehumanise each other.”

We are seeing an increasingly wide array of language and behaviors that dehumanize people, both in the United States and around the globe. This book is a good reminder that perhaps the only “real” evil is otherizing those who are different from us and ejecting them outside our own individual and cultural moral frameworks.