The pop-psych dilettantes who write for Time magazine seem to be engaged in a little intramural debate about nature and nurture. Several weeks ago, Time favored us with a cover story about birth order, reviving the old chestnut about firstborns being leaders, middle children falling through the cracks, younguns rebelling, and so forth. It's the sort of unsophisticated nonsense to which some parents desperately cling as they seek to decode the infinitely complex little ciphers they have brought into the world. The birth order argument clearly represents a brief in favor of nurture, suggesting that environmental factors (negotiations and struggles between siblings) supersede the determinism of genetics in shaping our lives.
This week, however, Time reverses field with a new cover on the subject of morality. "What," they ask, "makes us good [or] evil?" Surprisingly enough, the answer has nothing to do with big sister getting all the best presents at Christmas. Instead, the magazine lurches back over to nature's side, filling us in on the latest findings of brain scientists and zoologists who insist that the answers to life's most enduring mysteries can be found under the skull and in DNA's double helix.
But don't worry: Time hasn't forgotten its reigning Person of the Year: You. Sprinkled among the descriptions of MRI results and tales of altruistic apes are several morality puzzles specially designed for dinner table family discussions, assuming that such things still occur. One, a kind of Anne Frank meets Sophie's Choice scenario, asks whether you could smother to death a crying infant if that were the only way to prevent enemy soldiers from discovering and subsequently executing you and everyone else hiding with you in the basement. And would it matter if the baby was yours, rather than someone else's?
The article is at its worst when it oversimplifies good and evil, at one point providing us with photos of what appear to be the starting lineups for the Heaven/Hell basketball tournament. The baddies open the game with Hitler, Stalin, Osama (tall guy, presumably the center), Augusto Pinochet, and Pol Pot. The angels counter with Gandhi, Dr. King, Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama (I know that's only four, but maybe they can draft Albert Schweitzer to play point guard). The suggestion is obvious; to quote Dylan in his worst days: "It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody."
Aside from being lazy and facile (c'mon you could have picked at least six of the nine without even looking), this gallery of Cains and Abels plays once again into the currently popular Manichean view of evil as inborn and unidimensional. If our enemies are innately and irredeemably bad, then there is no reason to reflect on the causes or purposes of their actions. Every murderer in prison, from the once-abused child to the rage-filled victim of bullying, can be consigned to the human refuse heap, sentenced to be caged without mercy until death. Those who attack us from abroad can be dismissed as Hitler's moral descendants, and anyone who attempts to understand their motivations can be slandered as just another Chamberlain gullibly traveling to Munich.
This is obviously not to say that some acts, regardless of their context, shouldn't be considered unforgivable. Of course we should imprison murderers, even the ones whose unbearable childhood traumas help account for their behavior; not all abused children grow up to kill. And nobody would dispute the need to capture or eliminate bin Laden and as many of his terrorist associates and acolytes as possible. My point is simply that when we dismiss these people as evil, we oversimplify a complex reality, hinder efforts to prevent future misdeeds, and eliminate the need to reflect on the constant battle between id and superego that takes place in all of us.
Just consider Hell's starting five, listed above: two sociopaths, a religious fanatic, a garden-variety brutal military dictator (still revered by many on the American right), and Pol Pot, about whom we still know relatively little. Hardly a matched set. Further, as the article points out, none of the quintet could have committed their atrocities without thousands (Osama) to millions (Hitler) of accomplices, few of whom would themselves satisfy any meaningful definition of evil. Therefore, unless we are willing to label every German who supported Hitler and every devotee of bin Laden as being alien to the rest of humanity, there are obviously still levels of understanding yet to be explored.
Indeed, by sticking with these relatively safe choices of bad guys (except, perhaps, Pinochet), Time frees itself from the more troubling question of how to distinguish between terrible acts committed by people who consider themselves moral (and may otherwise lead exemplary lives) and behavior that is truly malevolent. Were the Crusades evil? What about European colonialism? Does it mitigate your crimes if your slaughters are carried out in the name of national self-defense or religious mandate or some theory of manifest destiny?
And how do we regard the person who opts to murder that infant in the cellar?
These are obviously difficult questions and I am being somewhat unfair in raising them in the context of the Time magazine article, which was actually quite a bit more nuanced than their unfortunate rogues/saints photo gallery would suggest. Further, it is quite possible that some people are so damaged or so mentally unbalanced that they are indeed beyond repair and reason, and perhaps these people can be best described as evil. But the word is thrown around far too carelessly, often by people who have an ideological stake in silencing opposition to their policies. Like birth order, evil is a seductively easy explanation for a very complex set of phenomena. Regardless of our religious and philosophical traditions, we might be well served to see less evil, hear less evil, and, most of all, speak far less about evil.