Causes of human wickedness

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Sometimes people harm others inadvertently. They sell asbestos sheeting without realising that asbestos dust can lodge in your lungs and kill you. They charge a lot for a drug without thinking that many people who need it will not be able to afford it. They steal and crash a car without knowing that its owner cannot afford another.

Such wickedness can often be checked by publicising the damage done, and punishing those who continue to offend.

The more worrying cases of human wickedness are those when people deliberately harm others, and even enjoy doing so. There are two inadequate responses to these cases. The first is the ancient religious one of blaming the Devil, who delights in hurting others. If the Devil exists, we do not know how to confine or kill him. The second, more common response is to blame people’s free will. People can freely choose to harm others, but that tells us nothing about why they choose to do so. We can appeal to people to refrain from such behaviour, and even threaten to punish them if they ignore our request and continue to harm others. But that does not get to the root cause of their wickedness.

History reveals two common causes of deliberate wickedness, which sometimes combine. The first is what might be called an excessive desire for wealth, power or glory, even for all three. We all want some wealth, at least what we need for a comfortable life. We all want some power, to do the things we really want to do, physical, social or mental. And we all want some recognition, some affirmation that we are of value to others. However, some people covet more than they need. They passionately desire great wealth and all the things money can buy. They are determined to bend others to their will, commanding organisations, even nations, to obey their instructions. And some yearn for public adulation, courting it with spectacles that amaze others. The behaviour of such people becomes wicked when, in the pursuit of their excessive desires, they deliberately harm those who get in their way. They exploit labour, they punish the disobedient, and they vilify those who criticise them. There are some spectacular examples of such wickedness. The Emperor Napoleon took 600,000 men, drawn from across his empire, to attack Moscow in 1812, of whom over 500,000 died during the campaign and the humiliating retreat the following year. His insatiable desire for power cost many lives.

The second common cause of deliberate wickedness is a little more complicated. It has been analysed at length by Ervin Staub in The Roots of Evil (CUP, 1989). People whose physical well- being is threatened, and/or whose dignity is affronted, sometimes feel so humiliated and perhaps betrayed that they become very angry with the people who have belittled them. They are driven to attack the perceived culprits, partly from resentment and partly to reaffirm their own worth. This cause of wickedness can cause individuals to act aggressively, or groups, or even nations to do so. Stab considers the humiliation that Germans felt in being defeated in the First World War, followed by their impoverishment during the 1920s, partly from having to pay reparations to the victors, created precisely that sort of anger which found expression among the Nazis in the 1930s, directed first against the Jews and later against the allies in the Second World War.

How can these two passionate causes of deliberate wickedness be overcome? It seems that a spiritual transformation is needed, setting aside powerful destructive impulses and accepting a program of modest desires and peaceful cooperation instead.

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