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Those Who Learn Nothing From History Are Doomed To Repeat It

While it’s obvious to everyone who’s contemplated the famous Trolley Car Problem that there can be no such thing as absolute moral values and therefore there’s no simple set of rules by which we can live our lives, it’s also true that we have inherited our species’ evolved set of emotional guidelines that cause us to assess particular actions in certain ways.

For example, nearly everyone hates being cheated. This is a highly adaptive response because it reduces the chance of others taking advantage of us and thus increasing their survival prospects while diminishing ours. Of course, we’re always in an arms race with wannabe free-riders: the cheaters are continually looking for ways to avoid our cheat-detection mechanisms and we’re always trying to upgrade these mechanisms in order to detect the new cheating behaviors. By and large the cheaters are always slightly ahead of just enough of us so that human society always contains a certain amount of cheating, similar to the way that predators are always slightly ahead of just enough of their prey (otherwise the predators would all become extinct due to dying of hunger).

We will therefore generally regard cheating as “bad” (unless we’re the ones doing the cheating, in which case we will find no shortage of exculpatory reasons for our actions). We call this evolved emotional reaction “a moral value.” In reality it’s a value based on its evolutionary advantageousness.

Likewise, we will tend to regard supposedly altruistic acts as “good” because during our evolutionary history the survival of the group often depended on the actions of a few individuals willing to incur significant risk in order to protect the rest of the group. This behavior was conserved because for most of our evolutionary history our genes were commingled with the genes of the other group members due to generations of inter-breeding. If Alex dies protecting the group of which he’s a member, Sally and Edgar and Mary and Joe and Frances will live on and as they each share around 25% of Alex’s genes, Alex’s behavior has contributed to his genes surviving and being passed on to future generations. This is the basis of what we call altruism and we feel it is “good” because its value is based on its evolutionary advantageousness.

We get into trouble when we fail to understand the origin of our thoughts and feelings about such things. Often people abstract from particular event-specific reactions to create general notions that are then believed to be absolute. This is how we end up with moral philosophy, for example, and all the incoherence and confusion that results from it. When we base our reasoning on faulty axioms (such as Plato’s mistaken belief that there must be some “true” abstract set of things “out there” about which our internal perceptions are mere reflections) we end up inevitably with faulty belief systems riddled with internal contradictions and absurd results.

By understanding the core concepts of evolution, however, we can avoid this pitfall and see the situation more clearly. Our “moral judgments” are based on whatever tended to be advantageous for most of our species over the long course of our evolution.

This means there’s no such thing as “absolute evil” or “absolute good.” We can, however, reasonably label certain actions as being worse than run-of-the-mill human follies and it’s adequate to employ the word “evil” provided we remember that it’s scale-free and thus largely undefined in the same way as “huge” is scale-free and thus largely undefined.

Furthermore, as our societies become more adequate, our moral assessments change.

Two thousand years ago few people would have questioned the wisdom of conquerors enslaving captured populations. In fact, slavery was considered to be highly moral. Turning a conquered warrior into a slave was kinder than killing him, and enslaving his wife and children was kinder than letting them starve. Everyone therefore benefited from the arrangement and so slavery was good. Today we believe the opposite, and this serves to show how fallible our reasoning is when we imagine particular relative responses to certain events or conditions to be absolute for everyone at all times and in all places.

Likewise, as recently as the late Victorian period few people saw anything wrong in forcing infants up soot-choked chimneys where many would inevitably get stuck and die. When high infant mortality rates are the norm and when children are seen as merely miniature adults, employing children in manual labor may be considered highly moral. The prevailing Christian mythology warned against the dangers of allowing children to be idle (apparently they’d be tempted into mischief by an evil sprite adapted from the Greek god Pan) and so forced labor induced by regular severe beatings was the kindest thing to do for small orphans and the children of the poor in order to keep them out of trouble.

Too few people grasp this essential fact, and so we see some individuals stridently judging those who are long dead not against the moral values of their time but against today’s transiently fashionable values. This implies that those who lived long ago should have magically known how a certain section of today’s society would look at morality and acted accordingly even if such actions would have been considered quite mad during the time these folk were actually alive. This attitude implies those of us alive today should likewise magically be able to know what will be considered “morally correct” by some section of society two hundred years from now, and act accordingly.

Unfortunately this obvious corollary seems entirely to have escaped the folk who pleasantly shriek and howl against what they consider to be the failings of those whose lives were lived many years ago.

We act as we do because we’re heavily influenced by the moral norms of our time. We may be slightly influenced by the norms of the past but there’s no way in which we can be influenced by whatever moral norms will arise hundreds of years from now. Things could hardly be otherwise.

So once again we’re back to the relativity of moral judgements. This does not mean that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet was criticizing not moral relativity but rather the cynical Jesuit practice of claiming that any action was moral provided it served a “higher purpose.” This was a hot topic when Shakespeare wrote the play and is again today as leaders of nations blatantly lie in order to serve their supposed “higher purpose” of “making their nation great again.” The whole point of the play is Hamlet’s struggle with conflicting ideas of morality (plus the fact that the audience would perpetually be expecting the sort of bloody denouement that was characteristic of the Revenger Tragedy genre of which Hamlet was a part and would be biting their nails in breathless anticipation).

If there’s no absolute moral value to be found anywhere in concrete behavior or abstract reasoning, what do we really mean when we say an action is evil?

An action is evil if it violates current norms to an exaggerated degree and results in tangible harm being caused that is utterly disproportionate to any infraction that may or may not have been committed by those suffering from the action.

For example, if a small child is beaten to death by its parents for having failed to tidy away one of its toys, most of us would regard this as an evil act. If a woman is snatched from the streets at random by a stranger and then held captive for years during which she’s repeatedly starved, beaten, and raped, most of us would regard this as an evil act. If a national leader decided during a petulant tantrum to order a nuclear strike on parts of his country that had recently voted for an alternative politician, most of us would regard this as an evil act.

Yet things are not so simple. There are some, belonging to extreme religious cults, who would argue that beating a child to death for failing to tidy away its toy was a highly moral act because it “saved the child’s soul” from a devil. There are some sad and stunted individuals who’d regard the abduction and abuse of an innocent woman as a moral act because it’s “striking back against women who are emasculating real men.” And a great many of Trump’s supporters would regard a nuclear strike on the State of California as “burning away the devil’s seed” and applaud such an action.

Therefore, when we talk of moral values we can only talk in a general way about somewhat undefined feelings and ideas held by perhaps a preponderance of the population at any point in time.

Morality, therefore, is akin to art: “I know it when I see it” is the best most of us can do.

Yet we often fail to know it when we see it.

Most people in the USA when asked to name an example of evil trot out the standard response of Adolf Hitler despite the fact that Hitler’s regime killed far fewer people and in far less horrific ways than the regimes of Stalin and Mao. This is because most US citizens know nothing about the Holodomor and the Cultural Revolution. Ignorance and force of habit frames their definition of evil. Perhaps some also imagine an Ernst Stavro Blofeld type of person plotting inordinately complex schemes of global domination while stroking a hapless white cat.

In reality most evil is perpetrated by ordinary people, each of whom will say, “I’m just doing my job.”

There are many reasons for this phenomenon including our hardwired desire to conform to group norms and the fact that there are significant neurochemical consequences of one’s place in the social hierarchy. Due to the influence of Dopamine2 (D2) receptors in the brain, we feel better when we’re in a superior social position and we feel bad when we’re in an inferior social position. For those in inferior positions, exercising power over those in even lower positions is an efficient way to activate the D2 receptors and thus temporarily feel better about themselves.

This is the reason why weak and inferior individuals love to bully those they’re certain won’t fight back, but are cravenly obsequious to those they perceive as strong.

Trump is a classic example of a weak inferior person: he bullies the powerless but sucks up to Putin and Duterte and Kim Jong Un and other thuggish leaders whose approval he desperately craves.

And the influence of D2 receptors on mood is often why ordinary people do evil things.

Let’s consider a recent evil that was perpetrated in the USA, which is nominally a country claiming to adhere to at least some Western norms and values. Refugees fleeing rape and murder in Central America were taken by US government officials and transported to internment camps where terrified children were torn from their parents, told they’d never see their parents again, and placed in cages. The parents meanwhile were likewise placed in cages and in many cases were forced to drink from toilets in order to avoid dying from dehydration. So far more than 1,000 children are officially unaccounted for and several deaths have occurred due to mistreatment and neglect. Although US policy is not yet to gas these refugees with Zyklon B, it’s clear in what direction official policy is heading.

Who is culpable? Of course Trump and his coterie of repellent enablers were the ones to give the orders and the Republican Party as a whole is likewise guilty of evil because the GoP was and remains firmly in support of these actions. Republican voters are also culpable because they continue to vote for the politicians who initiate these evil acts. And every government official who directly or indirectly contributes to these actions is likewise guilty of evil, even down to those who process the payroll run that disgorges taxpayers’ money into the accounts of agents who every day abuse helpless people simply because they can do so without suffering any consequences.

And yet, every single one of the aforementioned people will not consider themselves evil. And that’s how evil happens, and how evil spreads, until it becomes the norm.

Evil is ordinary people “just doing their jobs.”

Evil is easily done when lower-ranking individuals are the ones carrying out the dirty work. As the US government hires from the bottom, it is almost exclusively staffed by people who did less well at school than most of their peers, who earn less than most of their peers, who know less than most of their peers, and who are less intelligent than most of their peers. Consequently they feel their inferior status keenly and are eager for opportunities to feel better about themselves by exercising authority over the powerless and helpless. Government employees aren’t aware of how the D2 receptors in their brains respond when they bully tiny children and terrified women; they just know it makes them feel a bit better about themselves.

Life is great when you truly get pleasure from your work.

The trouble is that for most of us, evil is an abstraction we rarely if ever encounter. Thus we’re unprepared to cope when it manifests in front of our eyes. At best we engage in pointless virtue-signaling (street protests, Internet blogs) and at worst we avert our gaze to avoid feelings of discomfort. Evil triumphs when good people do nothing. And doing nothing is always the easiest thing to do.

Perhaps only those who’ve had direct personal experience of evil are able to act meaningfully when evil arises. It’s not entirely surprising that the most strident and effective resistance to the Trump Administration’s blatant evil with regards to treatment of refugees has been Jews Against ICE. When one’s parents and grandparents were murdered by a tyrannical genocidal regime, one sees matters more clearly and is less willing to avert one’s gaze.

Yet we don’t have to be members of a particular ethnic group or religion to have experienced evil. For some of us it strikes from within the family. Inadequate adults love to prey on small children.

One of my very earliest memories, from around the age of four, is of my maternal grandmother coming into the bathroom when I was sitting on the toilet. She was the product of a lower-middle-class Glaswegian upbringing, unread and unhappy, reduced to dependency on my father with whom she had a hate-hate relationship. She resolutely withheld love and approval from my mother in order to ensure that my mother would keep desperately trying to earn that love, even at the cost of her marriage and her children.

My grandmother was by this time an unattractive late-middle-aged woman who resembled nothing so much as Mister Toad. In her mind, however, the only true indicator of beauty was a hatpin and thus she had an extensive collection of variously-colored pins, each around four inches long and perhaps an eighth of an inch in diameter. It was one of these cherished hatpins that she forced through my penis as she stared malevolently into my eyes, gloating over my powerlessness in that small bathroom so many years ago.

Most of my grandmother’s torments were however psychological. As my mother was in the habit of abandoning us when things got too much for her, my grandmother would happily assure me that because I was such a horrible nasty little boy it was all my fault my mother had gone and that she was never coming back.

I came to understand that eventually, perhaps after a few hours or perhaps only after a few days, my mother would in fact return. As I grew older and took responsibility for shielding my younger brother from my grandmother, I learned to pay no heed to her invective-ridden denunciations and her assertions of permanent abandonment.

But the phrase, “never coming back” haunted me well into my thirties. And several near-death experiences resulting from total lack of adult care made me keenly aware of how precarious life can be.

The net result has been a life filled with rescues, attempts to save others from various unpleasant situations large and small. A life in which I’ve persistently been unable to look the other way. A life of acquiring useful skills, reading widely in order to understand better the vagaries of human nature, and trying as best as I can to apply a home-grown set of ethical standards to real-world situations, often at significant cost to myself.

I understand the psychology of bullies. I’ve encountered enough in my life, including the gang of five teens who tried to stab me to death one morning when I was fifteen because “you’re not from around here.”

The most important thing I know is that bullies grow in power and status when permitted to continue their rein of terror, but crumble the instant someone slaps them down hard.

Sadly, slapping people down hard isn’t something nice middle-class folk are comfortable doing. Thus the bullies dominate, the nice people resort to empty gestures or look the other way, and the great mass of less adequate people line up behind the bully because that’s where safety lies, plus it provides them with an opportunity to reduce their sense of inferiority by performing now-sanctioned bullying of the weak and powerless.

Leaders of democratic nations failed utterly to understand how to treat Trump after he was elected. Instead of excluding him from all meetings, snubbing his calls, and endlessly ridiculing him in public they attempted flattery, which was the worst possible strategy.

Democratic politicians continue to fail utterly to understand how to defeat Trump. They’re focused on policy, as if you could debate aspects of differential calculus with an amoeba. Overwhelming contempt and total intolerance of his pathetic blustering on every single occasion is the only way to burst his fragile little bubble, and essential during the upcoming televised Presidential debates (assuming, that is, Trump doesn’t avoid the debates entirely because his imaginary bone spurs are once again causing him pain…). Assaulted in this way, Trump would crumble, attempt a tantrum, and then soil himself.

If we want to avoid the USA becoming an even more dystopian country than it is today we need to use ridicule and we need to use action. It’s no good making jokes about Trump on TV shows watched only by those of us who’d never dream of voting for the infantile orange moron; the ridicule and scorn has to be everywhere, all the time, inescapable by even the most obtuse Trump supporter. It’s no good protesting in our home towns; we need tens of thousands of us blockading the camps and preventing anyone and anything getting in or out. The police can arrest hundreds; they can’t arrest a hundred thousand.

Of course, none of this will happen. We will tell ourselves that surely in 2020 a less deeply inadequate creature will be elected President and magically the USA will reverse a course it’s been on for decades. We will sooth ourselves with the latest must-watch TV series and feel that putting the right bumper-sticker on our car is a meaningful act of protest.

And so evil will flourish, just as it has done so very many times before.

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Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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