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Are Some People Born Evil?

The recent acts of terror both at home and abroad have raised many philosophical questions about what types of individuals would be inspired to commit such horrific deeds. Are they directly influenced by their upbringing and environment to commit evil? Or perhaps is there something at the core of their being that would eventually drive them to commit atrocities against the innocent regardless of what the eventual stimuli may be in their lives?

This leads to one of the oldest debates about human behavior; nature versus nurture. This argument is used in reference to any number of human behavioral tendencies. For the sake of the topic today, are we products of an ancestral lineage that helped create us with a propensity toward evil or are we influenced by other people and other factors in our environment to learn evil traits? Again, to clarify today’s discussion we are not talking about petty crimes or minor moral dilemmas. We are talking about abhorrent evil.

Negative conditioning is most obvious any time a picture of a child surfaces wearing a hooded sheet or a Nazi uniform. This type of negative conditioning is also present on the tough streets of our most violent cities where children are often inured to violent behavior and to idolize criminals. There is no question that these children are not getting off to a good start through no fault of their own. However, despite negative odds many people rise above these types of conditioning and go on to live productive lives. Conversely, many children are raised by loving and caring families along with well-adjusted siblings in diverse communities and somehow still manage to end up choosing a dark path in life.

Specific prejudices are most certainly learned and under the right conditions can be untaught so to speak through education and guidance. However, I’m not sure that the same applies to an actual blood thirst and a desire for mass murder.

Two of the patron saints of evil are Osama bin Laden and Adolf Hitler. In this regard the histories of both men are worthwhile and interesting topics of discussion.

Osama bin Laden was born into a very wealthy family with strong connections in Saudi Arabia. He arguably had every opportunity to live a carefree lifestyle and was hardly a victim of an unfair start in life. Nonetheless, somewhere along the line the rich quiet child transformed into a religious extremist. As his radical views and actions grew his family reportedly disowned Osama bin Laden and the Saudi Arabian government revoked his passport.

Very young Adolf HitlerHitler’s personal religious beliefs are a subject of much conjecture and debate. It is generally presumed that Hitler was a materialist with little spiritual feeling and most likely evoked religion only to legitimize his own interests. Hitler had an estranged relationship with his father who died when Hitler was a young man. His mother died several years later and by all accounts her death was very difficult for Hitler because he was very close to her. Hitler’s ideological development most certainly began to resolutely take shape some years later after the First World War. Hitler was embittered over the breakdown of the war effort and was shocked by Germany’s complete capitulation to the terms of the surrender.

Both Osama bin Laden and Hitler were skilled communicators, intelligent, and able to amass a large radical following. Unfortunately, their bizarre and malevolent brand of charisma reaches beyond their graves to inspire deep-seated violence and hatred for a present-day generation. It is a plausible assertion that if either man directed his leadership skills toward good deeds the world might be a better place.

So, why do some people such as Osama bin Laden and Hitler actually seem to choose to commit diabolical acts?

As the understanding of the human genome has progressed it seems as though both of the arguments for nature and nurture are partially correct. Nature endows us with certain inborn abilities and traits and then the nurture aspect takes these genetic tendencies and molds them as we mature.

By contrast, The Bible addresses the notion that some people are incorrigibly wicked. “Though grace is shown to the wicked, they do not learn righteousness; even in a land of uprightness they go on doing evil and regard not the majesty of the Lord.”

I do not believe that there are positive or negative spirits influencing human behavior. However, I do feel that some people will innately and deliberately turn away from what we might call a natural goodness or morality.

Most pets have been conditioned through generations of selective breeding to genetically be predisposed to co-exist with human beings. Those with the most friendly and human like attributes are encouraged to breed. They are also a product of human nurturing as almost from their birth they are raised by humans who love them and show them affection. However, there are times when a pet, despite the best pedigree and nurturing, is a dangerous threat to human beings and therefore must be destroyed.

Is it possible that some people as well are not intrinsically capable of living in a civilized world with other human beings?

There is ongoing research as to what other possible causes there may be for violent tendencies and psychopathic behavior. Many have suggested that irregularities in the brain and the limbic system could play significant roles in the development of violent behavior. Any combination of physical or mental abuse is also a major consideration. A more controversial theory from the biological and evolutionary point of view is that the transition of man from beast to the purveyor of civilization is not yet complete.

Going back hundreds of millennia, the first evidence of the use of tools by our earliest human ancestors in Africa is followed closely by the use of weaponry. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the same tools and technics that could split rocks could also split heads. We are a violent species that has utilized war as much as anything else to shape our civilizations.

I would agree that humans could very well be influenced by our early animalistic instincts. After all, we are just an advanced species of primates and not the only members of that group to engage in aspects of warfare. However, referring to certain evil humans as animals may be an insult to animals because we have managed to kick thing up a notch in the brutality department. Megalomania and genocide are a few examples of classically unique human endeavors. 

The same power of intellect that we possess as human beings that gave us the ability to dream of traveling to the moon has also enabled some of us to craft new ways of indulging our desire to inflict pain and suffering onto other people and living things. In this regard I wonder if it is this dark side of our brainpower that has allowed us to evolve a barbarity that transcends the natural viciousness of the wild kingdom. Serial killers are prime examples of human beings who not only have an insatiable desire to kill but also mix their homicidal cravings with a lust for violent deviance. Sociopaths, who have no conscience but yet retain the uncanny ability to disguise this disastrous inadequacy, by some accounts represent one to four percent of our population.

I wonder how many of us would take a tour of the most violent and locked down death row wards in various prisons throughout the country? What would scare us the most about that experience? Would it be the fear of violence? Or perhaps, would it be that we don’t want to face the fact that the people incarcerated there are not necessarily monsters but are more normal human beings than what we would care to admit? Maybe they remind us of our own evil dark side that dwells deep within each of us. The only thing that separates us from impenitent killers is that they choose to indulge an aspect of their will that we as civilized human beings recognize as the absolute worst traits that humankind has to offer. In my opinion there has to be something misfiring in the character of what makes them human that makes their brand of evil beyond rehabilitation.

Are some people born evil? To some degree I would argue that we are all born evil. However, we are also born with a great capacity to love and care for each other. Those traits have become a valuable part of our intellectual evolutionary process as well. We comprehend and appreciate that it is much harder to create and nurture the fragility of life than it is to destroy it, and that our immense capacity to destroy life could result in the end of our species and possibly the end of all life as we know it. The common desire that we all share as human beings to be loved and respected should extend to all living things and the world that we live in. It is for these reasons that the vast majority of us win our inner struggles to become better people and work toward a better world for everyone. Our love and appreciation for each other is the heartbeat of our humanity.

In this way we as intelligent and civilized human beings have great powers of reason and a free will. There is hardly anyone of any age who is not able to recognize the act of murder as an offense against humanity and the laws of a civilized society. I would caution against shifting the blame for the evil that some men do onto other influences in society. I understand that it may be easier for some of us to believe that we are all born sweet and innocent rather than to have to struggle with our own still evolving inner demons. That is scary because frankly it is a fight that some of us will not win and eventually we all need to own up to who and what we are as an individual human being.

Ultimately, that is what separates the good people from the evil people. 

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