Leitmotif

Reason as the Leading Motive

Why do Some People Choose Evil? Updated

Posted by Jerry on August 26, 2006

In a long comment, Faiyaz poses the question:

If all humans start with a blank slate, without any innate tendency to be evil, then what makes a person, when he is a child, not value this life and what makes another value it? Is there some universal condition or principle, which can apply across the board, and explain this choice?

If you try to solely focus on the environment the child grows in, then you will find examples on both sides —ie from any set of external conditions, be they very adverse, harsh, unreasonable, or their opposite, ie conducive, encouraging, rewarding you will find, that under both these sets of opposite conditions, both valuers and parasites have emerged.

I presume the essence of Faiyaz’s question is that why do some choose evil (very briefly, evil being that which is anti-life)? Why would someone wish to be anti-life or parasitic or immoral? Is it an innate human tendency for some to do evil? Or is there some determinism or causal factors in our environment?

My answer is this:

No, there is no innate tendency to choose evil. While environment does play a role, the ultimate reason some choose evil and some don’t is simply because each of us are causal agents with free will who act explicitly or implicitly on the ideas that we hold consciously or unconsciously. Bad ideas are those that are not consistent with the standard of man’s life qua man. Acting upon such ideas (or, in some cases, not acting because of those ideas) is evil.

Humans are uniquely and essentially conceptual beings. We hold ideas and concepts, and accordingly, we direct our lives. Even the idea that “I have no set ideology to live by; I do whatever as it comes as I feel like” is an idea that directs the person’s life. Even the idea that “I usually don’t think of what I do, I just do it” is a philosophic view of living one’s life.

Why do some people choose evil? Ultimately, it is all because of bad, anti-life, anti-this-wordly ideas. Even when a person disregards the importance of ideas and believes that practical reality is all he is concerned with, that in itself is a bad philosophic point of view; if a person disregards the notion of private property, that is a bad idea that can lead to immoral acts. If a person mistakenly accepts the notion that selflessness is virtuous, that is an immoral idea that will lead to immoral acts according to standard of one’s own life qua man as the foundation of all rights, ethics, morals, and values.

Rand grasped the extreme importance of ideas by understanding them not as merely abstract theories to juggle in one’s head but as they correspond to actions and consequences in reality.

UPDATE:

Daniel Bron offers an insightful and correct response to Faiyaz’s question. Daniel accurately identifies the basic premises of the question and its response:

Faiyaz,

The choice to live is a primary choice in ethics. Just as the choice to focus is a primary choice in epistemology.

The choice to live and the choice to focus are one and the same choice. You can’t make the choice to live without making the choice to focus. And when you make the choice to focus, you’re making the choice to live.

So one cannot ask: why does a man choose to live? The decision to live precedes all human values achievable in reality, and so, all issues of good or evil. So asking ‘why’ presupposes the existence of some value other than life that one holds, which motivates the choice.

Such a value is impossible because it is life which makes all values possible. Values cannot exist in the mind even before one has made the primary choice to live.

About religious people, given the mind-body dichotomy that religion, by its very essence, automatizes in their minds, it would be almost impossible for them to consistently make the primary choice to live in reality.

Dan

Now, Faiyaz raises another issue of the tabula rasa, the blank slate, which I believe requires some clarification.

In understanding and applying the principle of tabula rasa, very often we make the mistake (I did it too, before) of assuming that the human mind (including character, personality traits, etc.) are entirely blank or non-existent.

This clearly cannot be true given the identity and nature of our consciousness. A new-born infant cannot have an utterly “blank” mind with absolutely no content of awareness because that would contradict the principle of consciousness, i.e., that consciousness is always consciousness of something.

Thus, we reach a contradiction: is the mind of the new-born child tabula rasa, i.e. blank slate or does it have some content? If it is a blank mind, it should have no consciousness. But, we do notice that children exhibit some rudimentary form of awareness.

Now, another Objectivist principle states that contradictions do not exist. All knowledge should be consistently integrated with each other and correspond to facts of reality.

Therefore, in order to eliminate the contradiction we faced, we must realize that the definition of tabula rasa has to change because the concept and identity of consciousness is irrefutable (it is axiomatic—one of 3 Objectivist axioms).

Thus, we come to understand Rand’s original and accurate formulation of “blank slate” as properly referring to the conceptual faculty, i.e., the ability of our minds to form concepts and relate them to the world. In other words, the new-born infant has absolutely no conceptual faculty, which is only developed gradually through the learning of language with the use of its auditory and visual senses.

Thus, a new-born infant has consciousness that is only consciousness of sensory perceptions—a rudimentary form of consciousness similar to that of animals. A child has no concept of evil, rationality, individualism, value, parasite, etc. because they all required a conceptual grasp through a conceptual faculty.

Thus, we must be careful not to adulterate the Objectivist notion of the blank mind with the Lockean notion of the tabula rasa.

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21 Responses to “Why do Some People Choose Evil? Updated”

  1. Jason Leary said

    The idea of selflessness–as a virtue certinly does NOT lead to immoral acts –that is a bizarre claim .

    Evil comes from mental laziness/intentonal lassitude . It comes from a refusal to try and analyze …a tendency to go headlong into a fast, lazy minded impulse –glossing over distinctions . Evil is the tendency NOT to align the will with transcendent first principles .

  2. Mark said

    A solid explanation on tabula rasa, ergo.

  3. Tyrel said

    It’s been a while since I have commented on anything on here…but here goes!

    The idea of selflessness, having no concern for self, is most certainly an idea detrimental to any attempt at being an independant individual. In politics, having no concern for self leads to Communistic ideas….a clear evil. In religion, having no concern for self leads to the radical militant individuals who believe suicide bombings and things of the like are the right thing to do. Because they have no concern for self they no longer care whether they die or live. In the end, having no conern for self leads to the abandonment of the individual.

    Evil is not only derived from mental lazziness. Many religious leaders claim that homosexuality is evil/immoral. This leads to the denial of certain rights to this certain group of people, which IS evil. There is no thought process lacking from those that hold this belief and continue to withhold such rights. There are reasons for why they do what they do, perhaps unfounded, but they do have a clear thought-out explanation for their actions…at least according to them.

  4. Ergo said

    Nicely thought out, Tyrel.

  5. Faiyaz said

    Hey Jerry..I appreciate Daniel responding to my query…but, I will have to say I am not convinced…it doesn’t respresent the actual reality of the situation, besides being far too simplistic, and as Ayn Rand says, if there is a contradiction in reality, let us check our premises or ideas, rather than trying to fit reality into our notions.

    Daniel said: “The choice to live is a primary choice in ethics. Just as the choice to focus is a primary choice in epistemology.

    The choice to live and the choice to focus are one and the same choice. You can’t make the choice to live without making the choice to focus. And when you make the choice to focus, you’re making the choice to live.”

    Faiyaz: I would say, look at an actual child and the way he functions and then let us see if the above is a fair description of the same. A child, or even a teenager, do not make a conscious choice to live or focus as a principle…they are not even aware of these issues..a child would not even the know the concept of life versus death, or the meaning of focusing one’s mind. And yet he lives and learns to use his mind.

    More importantly, it is not that the child or teenager, who grows to be a parasite or immoral person (and mind you, there are bullies even among children, at least in the 9-12 age groups) doesn’t choose to live….even parasites live well into old age. Nor is it that a parasite doesn’t choose to focus as a principle…in fact, the Ellesworth Tooheys, James Taggarts,Immanuel Kants (if indeed he was evil)… are very intelligent and cunning in their own way. It is just that they try to get away with things, once in a while. SO, in this sense, even the parasites are making the choice to live and focus..(to alteast focus most of the times). They are not choosing death over life and then committing suicide.

    Daniel: So one cannot ask: why does a man choose to live? The decision to live precedes all human values achievable in reality, and so, all issues of good or evil. So asking ‘why’ presupposes the existence of some value other than life that one holds, which motivates the choice.

    Faiyaz: If this were the case, then consider this: All men, immoral and moral choose to live (at least at some level). IF some didn’t choose to live, then those would have not lived. So, if one says that the decision to live precedes all issues of good or evil, then the scenario would be that just by the mere fact of exercising the choice to live, one would be, as a necessity, be moral. Given by this logic, there could be no possibility or scope for immoral men to exist, because, as I said earlier, even the immoral men do choose to live at some level.

    Hence, I say that this is not a valid representation of reality. One can ask the question, why one person chooses to value this life (as opposed to live, as all of them do choose to live), and why another doesn’t choose to value this life, abandoning the prospect of being happy.

    The fact of reality is that some people DO choose to be moral and some don’t..no one can deny that. And both types of people do live and use their minds to varying extents. My originally query was not basically addressing how they come about valuing or not valuing this life (though this is also a pertinent and interesting topic), but was more on, why, for what conceivable reason, can one not choose value this wonderful life.

    If one observes babies and very young children, then they can be said to be passionately valuing this life…in fact, as Ayn Rand has said, a baby in its first three to four years goes through a remakarble pace of cognitive development that in later years, is usually not possible for us grown-ups to equal (barring some geniuses like her, I suppose). Then, later on you see, that some of those babies keep that fire burning within them, value this life, care about their happiness and some just give up. What perplexes me is why do some hold and why do some give up. And surely, this cannot be an absurd question to ask…?

    Faiyaz

  6. Ergo said

    Faiyaz, Daniel points out the answer correctly with regard to your question of why some *choose* evil. Now, I am personally quite unclear about your comment now… it seems to me that you are muddling many issues all together–childhood, adulthood, teenage, etc. I’m not sure at which stage in life your question pertains to. If it has to do with teenagers and young adults, we can properly state that they do have a reasonably developed conceptual faculty–thus to some extent, aware of concepts like evil, etc.–though they may not be too articulate about them.

    Now, if we are talking about infants and little babies, ofcourse we all agree that they have not yet developed conceptually. Thus, issues of morality do not apply to babies.

    You said: “a child would not even the know the concept of life versus death, or the meaning of focusing one’s mind. And yet he lives and learns to use his mind.”

    I agree, a child does not know these concepts in the beginning. But it is precisely when he “learns to use his mind” that he also begins to learn of these concepts of life and death.

    You said: even parasites live well into old age… even the parasites are making the choice to live and focus..(to alteast focus most of the times). They are not choosing death over life and then committing suicide.

    Ayn Rand never said parasites do not and cannot live well into old age. Infact, *because* they are parasites who feed on the Hank Rearden’s of this world, many parasites have very comfortable lives. They are NOT, however, making the choice to LIVE: Life is a self-generated action. So, does that mean they are all committing suicide? Does that mean they are all dropping dead? NO!
    In one of my earlier posts, I point out that possessing LIFE is a defacto fact. Every human on Earth has life. The CHOICE (and therefore, the purpose and reason for morality) is whether to CONTINUE TO LIVE, TO CHOOSE TO KEEP LIVING, and HOW TO KEEP STAYING ALIVE.

    You are born into this world without your choice, knowledge, or “consent.” However, once you conceptually *CHOOSE* to live, then consequent to that primary choice to live, you have to now think (i.e. focus) on HOW TO CONTINUE LIVING? As a parasite that lets others do the work of sustaining your own life, or as an independent producer who works and sustains his won life himself?

    Choosing to focus does not automatically make you a rational and moral person–which, Faiyaz, I think you are confusing here. It is only after you choose to focus that you can choose to be rational or irrational. To make the choice to live raises the question “live how?” To choose to focus raises the question “think how?”
    To think rationally is to live happily. One can continue existing and surviving as a parasite; but one cannot live a happy life irrationally. Happiness is possible only to rational men.
    Immoral men can live hedonistic lives, but ultimately, they live second-handed lives that depend on the production and morality of others. Thus, Rand regards the sanction of the victim as an evil perpetuated by *rational* and *moral* men.

    Faiyaz, basically, after clearing through some of the many ideas that have been muddled together, the original answers given by Daniel and myself remain: possessing life is defacto; choosing to keep living and sustaining that life is the primary choice and the standard of all values. Choosing to focus inorder to ascertain HOW to live, is the primary choice and the standard of all virtue. Humans are first causal agents with free-will; therefore, we can choose to continue living or choose death. We can choose to focus and think rationally or we can think irrationally or evade the choice to focus at all! All good and evil arise from these basic principles.

    Thus, why would some people wish to abandon the values of this wonderful life?? Because they can CHOOSE to do so.

  7. Faiyaz said

    Ergo said: Thus, why would some people wish to abandon the values of this wonderful life?? Because they can CHOOSE to do so.

    Faiyaz: Thanks for responding and patiently explaining the various points. In all honesty, I am still confused and not convinced…but I would rather rest this issue for now, as nor do I have the answers.

    Only, come on, you can do better than saying in the end, : They don’t value this life, because they can CHOOSE to do so 🙂

    Would that logic apply to all the choices that we make in life..? Someone becomes an engineer, because he can choose to be one, another becomes a writer, because he can choose to do so, or another becomes a bum, as he can choose to do so, and yet another becomes a murderer, because he can choose to do so…

    Regards

    Faiyaz

  8. Eugen Ulirsch said

    I have often thought about this problem. It is not easy, and any
    answer which can bring us a better understanding, must go into much more detail. Have you read “The Blank Slate” by Steven Pinker?

  9. Ergo said

    I’m not a fan of evolutionary psychologists. They are wrong from their most fundamental premise at the get go. It’s no wonder that their field is a mess of contradictions, retractions, and floating theories. Also, given that Pinker is a philosophical comrade of Daniel Dennett speaks much about the invalidity of his ideas. (Dennett has is a determinist who believes that humans simply have no freewill and that it’s merely our delusional imaginations. With such fundamentally inaccurate and self-defeating premises, he cannot possibly be right about much else.)

  10. Caffeine said

    I believe that some people are evil. Plain and simple. I knew someone who, even as a young child, would conciously do all sorts of things against the rules. When I asked her later about why she did what she did, she told me because she wanted to. She said she enjoyed doing what she wasn’t supposed to. She was raised in a christian home and taught to do good, but she got some sadistic pleasure in breaking the rules and laws. There was one time that she nearly suffocated her younger brother, and she was seven at the time. He was only four. He didn’t do anything to her, but she laughed while she was trying to strangle him. (She told me all this later). At a very young age they had her committed because of the things she did. I haven’t seen or heard from her in a long time, but I believe that she was evil.

    • Delness said

      I would say the things she did were definitely evil. But as for her being evil, I’m not sure, some people have less accountability, when they have a mental difficulty. I hope she’s decided to choose to change for the better.

  11. Ergo said

    Caffeine, you said “some people are evil. Plain and simple.”

    Fortunately, it’s not at all that simple. 🙂 Fortunately because, a rapist cannot escape moral and legal judgment by saying, “oh, I just happen to be evil. I’ve been so since childhood. It’s in my nature. I cannot help it. Must be my genes. So, you can’t really hold me responsible for that over which I have no control.”

    The concept of justice (and fundamentally, of morality) presupposes the fact that all men are causal agents who are responsible (atleast to a predominant degree) for their own actions–thus, deserving reward and praise for the good, and condemnation or punishment for the evil.

    Anyway. Well, the girl you describe does sound so evil! I can see why you may have been lead your belief that some people are just evil. Plain and simple! 😉

  12. r torresan said

    as for the above child, i’d say her problem was envy pure & simple – a lot to be said for the idea of the so called, 7 deadly sins (if i may say, although i myself am an atheist), and our, to this day, propensity towards them. how do parents deal with that – perhaps firstly look to examples in the home.
    but my interest in this blog is regarding evil (there y’go, another deadly sin). if to be evil is to wish & or cause harm to others (vandalising property is another issue), to destroy rather than aid then cruelty is at issue. how does one learn to be cruel to others? starting young, perhaps with other young things in the playground or down the river or backyard – pull off those fly wings, beat that cat, wack that dog – cruelty to animals – does mom squash every insect she sees? did dad chop off that chicken’s head – a learning process. yes, tabla rasa to start with (how can it be otherwise if it is the case that mind is the product of brain functions), the infant mind being the seat of a flurry of survival instincts. then onto monkey see monkey do. so, if there is nothing wrong with causing animals pain, it is a short step to causing others pain is ok. the child who has picked up this lack of caring has taken a step towards his/her future.

  13. Bullshit.

    Evil is a lazy seflishness. Someone who puts their own desire to get drunk or high or their own psychological needs above the needs of their child is evil – a bad parent, and a possible child abuser. Someone who puts their own deep seated psychological needs above the needs of everyone else in the world, is evil – i.e. a fascist. (this includes Stalin but also any of your local boneheads – the English Defence League are a good example of this).

    Someone who puts their desire to lord it over others first and reserves special contempt for the poor, the needy and the weak is evil. Call it what you want, but your “objectivist” so called philosophy is evil and it WILL be defeated by stronger cultures. The Chinese are going to own your country if you go on like this. I only say this because like a lot of people I respect and like America and I hate what the likes of Ayn Rand have done to the place and the people who live there.

    • Nate said

      It would seem that your comment is fueled by quite a bit of personal anger/negative emotion on some level. Looking at these things OBJECTIVELY and WITHOUT BIAS, we can achieve a somewhat more “fair” or “equal” perspective on the matter. But as many of us may already know, humans without bias…would no longer make us human.

      • Andrew Wade said

        Yeah, you could even say “fair and balanced”. Good God you are a fool – every bit as brainwashed and fanatical as the Communists and Islamists you pretend to hate.

        Your ideology is literally anti-human – people are social animals, not robots in an economics simulation. Get a life and quit licking the butts of the people who are robbing you blind, saddo!

      • Delness said

        why all the anger? I mean it’s good to hate evil and not do it, it’s evil to hate other people, even if they do evil. Hating our fellowmen whether the Preacher or Prisoner is wrong. Try not to become that which you really hate, evil itself. It’s hard to forgive, sometimes seemingly impossible, but it can be done if we let go of our pride.

  14. Nate said

    There are many many relevant speculations, points, theories that attempt to address the question: “What makes an individual choose ‘evil’ over ‘good’?”

    Well, I, by no means, know the answer to this question, but here are my two cents:

    I choose evil because I hate other people. I hate them because I feel wronged, rejected, and misplaced/misunderstood by the world as a whole, and by the people (individually) I have come in contact with over my years. From my experience: People are not to be trusted, they cause me pain, they betray, lie, cheat you, harm you both mentally, emotionally, physically. Now, with that being said, I am now a hypocrite. The lazy thinking does play into this, I fear what I do not understand, I am frustrated when unable to understand. Both my lack of understanding, my “deep-rooted” values/morals/beliefs, etc., all play into and fuel my desire to be evil. Certainly it is a choice, I think that this choice is made differently dependent on the individual. My choice is based off of a lack in social aspects that vary. I do not necessarily believe this is so much because I blame others, I simply am unwilling to let go of the past. I wish to seek vengeance, destroying and obliterating those who I feel unjustly wronged me. I want to reciprocate my negative energies, perhaps to have them fully understand my anguish, perhaps just because I am, as most will say, evil. I was not born evil. I have the innate ability to be kind, caring, loving, and good. I feel that although I have tried to live this way, I am rewarded with treachery, malicious feelings, poor treatment, vehement anger and venomous thoughts. I often wonder: “Why bother? The world stays fucked up. I maintain a positive, kind demeanor/mindset (mind you this is not for much longer than a few months), and yet I get negativity/cruelty in return. It is an endless chain, a cycle. I also maintain a diagnosis of bi-polar so I believe this will play into my personal circumstances thus changing the game a bit (or perhaps more so than just a bit). In the past I have been bullied, mistreated for reasons I do not yet understand, hated, publicly humiliated on more occasion than one, beaten, etc. I cannot answer this question in full, even in my own circumstances. It is not a satisfactory answer I am sure, but I do choose it. I choose it, so that I may feel justice. I may seek my vengeance, and, hope that will bring me inner peace. If not, I am not so worried as I value very little in this life, focus on very little, think often, but not exactly to the same extent of those I have seen posting here, on this topic. Feel free to pick apart my post, analyze, etc. I hope this, if anything, gives a small ray of light to be shed on this question/issue/topic.

    -Best Regards, Nate

    (P.S. I may be evil, but I certainly try to maintain some form of manner. :P)

    • Andrew Wade said

      Yeah, I hear the Nazis were real polite. Well dressed, too.

      Still, good to finally see some honesty from you scumbags.

    • Delness said

      I like the part where you said “I have the innate ability to be kind, caring, loving, and good.”, I think it’s wonderful that you recognize that. It’s like when we’re children we can sense it more fully, the desire to be good. I’m saddened that you’ve given up on that. I think a lot of us hurt because of poor actions of others, but it’s what we learn to do with the pain that matters, are we going to rise above it, or sink and laugh at the thought of what we could become? I want to choose to rise. I’ve been betrayed several times by those I loved, and I’m choosing to forgive them, every day (it still hurts over a decade later), and I will keep wishing them well, even as our Savior has asked us to do, Matthew 5:44.

  15. CJ said

    Good argument..

    (Deep breath)
    We are flawed as a a “species”, thing, whatever. .

    Evil is sometimes chosen, and also not chosen. But you’re biased, and so am I.

    Evil will always exist because we cannot achieve perfection. . But you only know what evil is because you have everyday examples of what evil is. Yes, at times, it’s because of conditioning – but it was set from day 1 for some of us. You are optimistic in your ideals (which is ok), but some things are just meant to be.
    People consided evil (well.. some) have great intentions. But it makes no difference when you REALIZE your role.
    I know I’ve said something and whole lot of nothing at the same time, but to sum it up – You could only know “good” because we set the standard for you.. So (respectfully), you’re welcome.

    #weoutnumberyou (said sternly but not proud)

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