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