This morning I was listening to a lady next to me in the coffee shop refer to the terrorist attacks on January 7th 2015 in Paris last week as ‘evil’. Specifically, she labeled the actual terrorists as ‘evil’. We seem to throw the word evil around a lot. We do the same when labeling Charles Manson, Adolf Hitler and the terrorists involved in 9/11. But I think we need to look deeper at the idea of evil. In this post, I am simply attempting to help readers look at evil differently and perhaps understand it more broadly.
My attempt at going deeper into the caricature of evil is to describe it as the erosion of empathy. Empathy occurs when we suspend our single minded focus of attention and instead adopt a double-minded attention. Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion. Being able to empathize means being able to understand accurately the other person’s position, to identify with “where they’re at.” Empathy is not something that is either present or absent, rather, empathy is more like a dimmer switch than an all-or-nothing. Sometimes we have a little, and sometimes we have a lot.
Evil occurs when one turns off empathy and treats someone as an object. What we can learn from this is that what happens in our brain matters when we discuss evil or empathy. Our medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), orbital frontal cortex (OFC), and amygdala help in the process we go through in order to judge when a faux pas has occurred, making appropriate social judgments, and becoming socially disinhibited. Think of when you cringe when you see someone in pain, for instance, a baby receiving a shot in the arm from a doctor. The cringing effect is induced by your brain’s ability to recognize pain in another human being and thus compel a response. Psychopaths studied in in fMRI studies show a lack of response in their brain when it comes to responding to recognition of pain in other human beings. As you can see, the key to empathy is recognition and response. What we are learning through fMRI studies is that borderlines, psychopaths, and individuals with autism have underactive responses in their brains that inhibit them from making an empathic connection.
So what’s my point? Evil is a fuzzy word that doesn’t tell us much of anything. It’s simply a linguistic placeholder we use to mean that a person is extremely bad. But once we view it as an erosion of empathy, we can see how the brain helps us to recognize and respond to other people’s pain. Empathy is what unites human being at the deepest level.
When empathy is eroded, people are simply objects. Viewing people as objects is what makes genocide, rape, and mass shootings so plausible. Despite the terror in people’s faces and the desperate cries to be set free, the murderer does not feel their pain, desperation, or fear. I am not saying that calling the person “evil” is wrong. I am simply saying that there is a context to the atrocity that is occurring which is deep and can help us understand tragedy better.
Written on 1/12/15 at 7:15pm at Starbucks in Los Gatos CA