- It can be tempting to label certain individuals as inherently bad, even evil, based on their actions. However, I believe such labels oversimplify complex situations.
- Others believe that people are neither inherently bad nor good, simply selfish, but neuroscience research on infants shows us that selfishness is learned, not innate.
- While admittedly anecdotal, powerful experiences in meditation have led me to believe that the true human essence is a pervasive, non-judgmental, undifferentiated love that we all-too-often forget or ignore.
Estimated reading time: 7-14 minutes
Last week, we talked about people who trigger a disproportionately negative response within us, at least relative to their perceived misdeeds. This week, we’re going to pivot to a more extreme end of the “bad” spectrum, and tackle a tricky question that’s fascinated humans for millennia. Is there such a thing as an intrinsically “bad” person? Or, put another way, does inherent evil exist?
I do not believe so, and I intend to make my case via both neuroscience and philosophical anecdotes. Thanks for joining me on this endeavor.
Warning: The beginning of this piece contains descriptions of extreme violence from one of the most infamous mass shootings in United States’ history.
On August 1st, 1966, at the University of Texas-Austin, twenty-five year-old Charles Whitman indiscriminately opened fire from an observation deck over 200 feet above the ground. He killed 15 people and injured 31 others. Earlier that day, shortly after midnight, he stabbed his mother to death in her sleep before returning home and doing the same thing to his wife.
Three separate episodes of senseless, brutal violence, all of which were later shown to be premeditated. By the common definition of “profoundly immoral and wicked,” one would struggle to find a more striking example of “evil.” But that isn’t the whole story.
Whitman’s autopsy revealed a brain tumor pressing on his amygdala, the brain area responsible for emotional regulation, particularly processing and responding to fear-based stimuli. This crucial piece of information raises some profound moral questions, and multiple experts have suggested that this tumor, clearly a factor beyond Whitman’s control, was the root cause of his homicidal actions. In fact, on one occasion, he even sought help from the campus psychiatrist about his increasing feelings of anger and violence. Unfortunately for his victims, he didn’t find his initial counseling session helpful, and did not return for further help.
For context, just imagine the inner turmoil that would have led to a twenty-five year-old, ex-military male in the 1960’s seeking help for his mental health. While I’m being slightly facetious here, most men in that era couldn’t even spell the word “therapy;” the societal taboo against it was that strong. Yet clearly, Whitman had a deep sense something was wrong, was worried about his potential to cause harm, and felt powerless to stop it.
So, while the acts he committed could undoubtedly be accurately characterized as “evil,” was Charles Whitman an “inherently evil” person?
This isn’t so easy to answer…
Obviously, some will have a knee-jerk reaction that says, “Of course he’s evil. He murdered over a dozen people in cold blood, including his own wife and mother.” While this conclusion is highly understandable, I disagree with it due to the mitigating circumstances of the brain tumor. But, I do want to make one position clear. Someone suffering from a condition like Whitman’s was undoubtedly too dangerous to remain part of society at large.
But, what do we, members of “society at large,” do about cases like this? There are obviously huge ethical concerns with simply jailing or isolating the sick and mentally ill. Plus, I don’t think anyone particularly wants to live in a world with literal “thought police” like in 1984 or Minority Report. One obvious (albeit incomplete) solution is to make it much more difficult for anyone to acquire the type of weapons that can lead to this type of violence, but that’s a topic for a different day.
Anyway, during the incident, Whitman was killed by police, which spared authorities and the public from having to tackle the potentially thorniest moral issue of all. Suppose he had survived, been taken into custody, and had the brain tumor discovered and removed. Further suppose that this surgery had instantly changed his behavior and disposition, so that he was no longer a danger to himself and others. In this hypothetical scenario, what consequences should he have faced for his actions?
This is an issue too complicated for me to have any desire to consider at present. I’m not sure there’s a satisfactory conclusion. However, it does provide a piece of evidence to help me answer the question, “Was Charles Whitman evil?” In my opinion, no. He was sick with a serious brain cancer that dramatically altered his personality and behavior.
This makes me feel quite strongly that whatever one might say about this situation, the extenuating circumstances make it very difficult to call this incident an example of inherent evil, no matter how shocking the violence.
Now, let’s balance out that dark and disturbing story with a much more positive one.
In mid-2022, I underwent an intense meditation retreat on the coast of Mexico, during which I spent eight days completely alone in total darkness. You can read about it in much more detail here, if you’d like. Prior to beginning the experience, the retreat leader encouraged me to set an intention. Mine was to experience the “undifferentiated love” we typically associate with revered religious figures like Jesus or the Buddha.
I desired this because I felt that my experience of love was almost always hierarchical in nature, and I wanted to experience a pervasive, all-encompassing, non-judgmental love for everyone and everything. And wouldn’t I know it, that’s exactly what happened on the fourth night.
I was meditating on the question, “Is there anyone I don’t want to experience peace, love, and happiness?” After pondering it for a while, I couldn’t find anyone for whom the answer was “yes.” I genuinely wanted those things for everyone. Immediately upon this realization, the following popped into my head. “Don’t confuse loving with liking. You’re never going to like everyone the same, but you don’t have to like someone to love them.”
Immediately thereafter, I felt what I can only describe as an intense explosion in my chest, followed by an incredibly powerful release of energy that began coursing through my entire body. But it wasn’t remotely painful or frightening. Quite the opposite. It felt like love was pouring out of every fiber of my being. Any action I could take that would have caused pain to anything else was utterly incomprehensible in this state, and simply didn’t exist as an option. Time seemed to stop, so I have no idea how long this lasted in a conventional sense, but it was, hands down, one of the most incredible and beautiful experiences of my entire life.
A Deeper Knowing
During this experience, I “knew” a few things. First, that this love I felt was the innate essence of existence. Next, it became obvious that love this powerful is our true nature as humans, within every single one of us, ever-present, though often buried deep. Finally, it is only when we forget this love (which is incredibly easy to do) that we’re capable of causing harm.
If your response to reading that last paragraph is one of skepticism, I don’t blame you. I put “knew” in quotation marks because I don’t have any logical or scientific reason behind believing all of this. But, I can say that the love I experienced in the dark was deeper than any mere belief. It felt more “true” than anything I’d ever known. And, I’m far from the only person to have an experience like this.
The word “noetic,” used within certain philosophical, religious, and spiritual circles, refers to the nature of knowing, itself. Noetic experiences could be described as self-validating or “more real than real.” Despite the difficulty in verifying the content of these experiences, the feeling of the “realness” of them tends to be fairly consistent across time periods, languages, and cultures. Here’s a study about noetic experiences if you’re interested in diving deeper.
So again, while I have no way of “proving” what I experienced, it became crystal clear to me that “evil” actions are a result of being blinded to or forgetting this inherent love. That may happen because it was denied either at key developmental periods or consistently throughout one’s life. But, even those who have committed unspeakable atrocities throughout history would have been incapable of doing so had they been in touch with this love. Receiving it from others consistently, especially when young, can allow us to more easily find it within ourselves. Regardless, I’ve become convinced that this love is always present, whether we can see it or not. Now, let’s examine a couple potential counterarguments.
Okay, even if intrinsic evil doesn’t exist, aren’t people inherently selfish?
I definitely used to believe this when I was younger, but experiences like the one in the dark, as well as learning something fascinating about infant development changed my mind. Are you ready? For the first year of a baby’s life, they don’t perceive themselves as separate from their mothers. This is mind-blowing! Why? Well, a primary “goal” (though that term isn’t perfectly accurate) of most meditative practices is to ultimately realize that you are not inherently separate from the universe. My favorite example to illustrate this interconnectedness at a conceptual level, paraphrased from Alan Watts, goes something like this:
“We see our fingers, arms, and legs as undeniably ‘part’ of our body. And yet, we could easily survive without any of them. However, we don’t feel that the air we breathe is part of our body, even though without it, we’d be dead within minutes. Isn’t that strange?”
Much of Eastern philosophy posits that “all is one,” intrinsically unified, and that any sense of separation is, at best, an illusion with functional utility in the relative world. And when we look closely enough, we can start to see the arbitrary nature of all the lines of separation we draw. Why is something like our hand “part of us” but the very Earth, which provides all our needs and allows for our survival, something else, something “not us?” Intellectually, this can be incredibly difficult to grasp, and even scary, so the egoic mind tends to strongly resist or simply ignore questions like this.
However, while non-separation may sound radical, neuroscience research cited in the above article proves that this lack of a sense of self is our default state when we’re born. Separation is not inherent, it must be learned. So, how can one be selfish when one has no conception of what a self even is? That’s impossible.
Granted, we humans do tend to be quick learners when it comes to selfishness. Simply witness toddlers resisting sharing their toys if you need a reminder. And I’m not sure this self-centeredness can (or even should) be avoided. As two of my favorite contemporary Buddhist teachers discuss, adopting this sense of separation is a crucial part of childhood development that allows us to function in the world. However, it’s crucial to remember that we learned to see ourselves as separate, which means it can be unlearned. The entire point of much spiritual practice and wisdom is rediscovering that a separate, selfish entity is inherently not who any of us are.
Finally, what about sociopaths and psychopaths?
First, as I learned through writing this piece, both terms refer to someone with Antisocial Personality Disorder, but the word “sociopath” hasn’t been used in official capacity for decades. Second, an infinite number of factors beyond one’s control influence the trajectory of brain development. Recent research in rodents has shown that trauma endured by parents can affect offspring even two or more generations down the road.
But here’s my point. Someone with Antisocial Personality Disorder isn’t “bad” – they have a disorder. While this makes them capable of harmful acts, this capacity can be traced back to a lack of sufficient exposure to love, even decades before they were born. And I get it. This may sound like I’m excusing hurtful behavior or engaging in moral relativism. I’m not. Every action has consequences, and nobody is above them.
However, I believe we may tend to label individuals as “evil” or “bad” partly because it makes it easier to view ourselves as “good.” It also absolves us of the responsibility of needing to care about the person or do anything about the societal conditions that allowed them to develop the way they did.
To that end, as I’ve written before about the concept of “moral luck,” holding an identity as “a good person” oversimplifies a complex situation in a manner that can actually make us more likely to hurt others. In the end, we all have the capacity for selfish and even evil acts within us, but this doesn’t make us evil. None of us is evil, but we all are love. No matter how deeply buried or well-concealed, it’s there. Of that I’m now sure. In fact, I’m more sure of that than just about anything else. And when we feel, remember, and know this love, evil simply cannot survive.
Before you go, I’d love to hear from you. Have I convinced you, or do you still believe in inherent evil? I’d love to keep the discussion going if you’ve got some counterarguments I missed! Reply to this email and let me know what you think!