By Deepak Chopra, MD
At the turn of the new year it feels as if evil is more present and dangerous than ever. One component of worldwide fear is terrorism, and in the minds of religious fanatics who turn to terror tactics, there’s a black-and-white conception of evil. This mental picture of God battling Satan, or something on the same absolute scale, tempts us to fight again terrorism from the same basis. But is there absolute evil in the first place?
There are many reasons to say no. “Pure evil” is a tag applied in the media for horrifying acts, but this is far from proving that the people who perpetrate these acts have become possessed by cosmic evil. As several research projects akin to the Stanford Prison Experiment have shown, ordinary people can step into immoral territory very quickly if given the right situation. Abu Ghraib was another shocking example. There is a lethal mixture when you have an enemy under your power along with permission to do what you want with him, absent any repercussions or punishment.
Extreme acts of violence do not constitute absolute, pure, or satanic evil. Outside a religious worldview, there are rational explanations for evil acts, and our response should be based on which of the following explanation we adopt.
- Situational Evil is an explanation that holds circumstances responsible for evil actions. The situation of jihadists, for example, includes decades of repressive governments and the secret police, along with ignorance, poverty, illiteracy, and hate instigated from extremist clerics. This explanation is often confused with excusing situational evil, but that’s unfair. In some countries a husband can shoot his wife’s lover and be let off for a crime of passion, and we all feel sympathy if a women killed a rapist or a parent killed a criminal intruder. In other words, we all switch into the situational model when we feel it is appropriate.
- The Disease Model of Evil holds that mental illness causes extreme and violent acts by the sufferer. The fact that mass shootings are so closely associated with the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia (e.g., hearing voices, feeling persecuted, developing elaborate conspiracy theories with no basis in reality) is strong support for the disease model. But this is another explanation accused of being an excuse. The application of the disease model should be more straightforward; we should find anyone with a history of mental disease innocent. But public outrage and a thirst for revenge often makes this impossible.
- Unconscious Evil comes closest to resembling the religious notion that devils and demons lurk inside us, but as a secular explanation, this one simply says that human nature is divided into the conscious and the unconscious. The unconscious is the hidden mind, and ever since recorded history, there are eruptions of mass violence known as wars. When wars break out, the unconscious has its day, and “good” societies perpetrate unspeakable acts upon a chosen victim/enemy. World WAR I, which led to mechanized slaughter and poison gas attacks is a prime example. The most civilized countries in Europe went to war with no real political purpose and sustained maximum killing on either side without justification. Eruptions from the unconscious are very real, and there is almost nothing that can be done when there is a full-blown episode.
- Existential Evil holds that the root causes of aggression, hatred, crime, and violence are innate, woven into the fabric of human nature. Because this is a fatalistic model it merges with religious explanations about God’s will and divine punishment for sin. Many people with a secular world view resort to this kind of explanation when their rational minds are at a loss to explain evil acts, but on closer examination, the explanatory force of existential evil is weak–there’s no real reason given except “That’s just how it is.”
So which explanation is correct? None is right in every case, and all have their valid use. The responsibility for finding an explanation that works falls upon each of us. It’s lazy and counter-productive to simply allow rampant public hysteria, fear, and suspicion to be acceptable. Unless you have proof that pure or cosmic evil exists, you can benefit the collective discussion by thinking through where evil comes from.
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism. He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. Chopra is the author of more than 80 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest books are Super Genes co-authored with Rudolph Tanzi, PhD and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine. www.deepakchopra.com