The Myth of Pure Evil

Written on October 27, 2008. Written by .

Three Wise Monkeys
What the monkeys knew about evil.
Photo courtesy of Shenghung Lin

In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt discusses a phenomenon that he calls “the myth of pure evil”, which refers to psychological tendency for people to imagine that they are purely good (or right) and others are purely evil (or wrong). This phenomenon most likely results from a combination of cognitive biases. First you disagree, then you create an explanation for why your opponent is wrong, and finally you convince yourself that your explanation is correct. The explanation for why your opponent is wrong may come from a bias such as fundamental attribution error, which predisposes people to think that the reason for someone’s behavior is due to their personality rather than their situation. Or perhaps it comes from a projection bias, which causes people to assume that others share the same beliefs and values. Both of these possibilities stem from a lack of understanding of what it is like to be in someone else’s position. Then you may convince yourself that your explanation is correct through a combination of overconfidence bias and self-serving bias. The result is that it seems obvious that you are good and they are bad.

Even when you think you have a strong rational argument in your favor, you are bound to be making assumptions that your opponent might not agree with. And even if you do manage to steer your opponent into contradictions, all you have managed to prove is that they are illogical, not evil. Everyone thinks that they are doing the right thing unless if they weren’t thinking at all, which means they were letting their genetically-programmed emotions take over. The TV show Heroes does an amazing job of illustrating how certain acts can seem evil from one point of view, but also seem completely understandable from another point of view. In one episode, the character Noah Bennet looks evil when he threatens to kill an innocent man unless he murders someone for him. But this is the only way he feels that he can prevent his daughter from being killed.

Acceptance is the remedy that allows you to prevent the myth of pure evil from hindering your life. If you always hold people to your own standards, then you will be constantly disappointed. In order to achieve acceptance it helps to remember that people are just survival machines for their genes. There is no reason that these biological battle tanks had to be rational at all, so we are lucky that there is any logic in this world. The reason why acceptance is so hard when it comes to people is that it seems like it could so easily be different if only people would learn. It is much more natural to accept that humans can’t fly, we don’t waste too much time complaining about that because it is physically impossible. But expecting people to act in a way that contradicts their genetic programming or their personal values is just as crazy. The many religions attempted such a feat and none of them ever succeeded in bringing peace and happiness to the world. One needs to accept the perceived faults of others by recognizing that they aren’t really faults at all because it isn’t a fault if it was never supposed to be better in the first place. Haidt gave a TED talk in which he suggested that in order to live an enlightened life we must see beyond the moral self-righteousness that is the normal human condition.

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