Scott Peck in his book "People of the Lie" suggests that the cause of evil is laziness or a form of laziness called cowardice. It exhibits itself in the lives of people who are unwilling to face the truth and are willing to believe or create a lie instead. When reading the book I asked myself, "What would motivate a person to choose such a painful and foolish path?"
Some religious views on evil have suggested that people are by default evil and unless there is intervention, their lives will exhibit evil. Or evil originated with Lucifer and began a war between good and evil that has spilled over to this planet. One Gnostic view suggests that the god of the Old Testament is an aberration that created a world that is evil.
If one were to ask "What would motivate any being to create evil?" I doubt any answer would make sense. I think the mystery of evil, if evil actually exists, is even more difficult than proving that God exists. It has become apparent that the results of evil actions not only destroy the victim, but also destroy the creator. In the Christian tradition Lucifer was the most advanced being in the universe and yet great power and intelligence seemed rather powerless to bring insight into the futility of evil.
One of the ideas that has been moving into my awareness is that people do evil things out of ignorance and/or the instinct for survival that often emerges in times of fear. If this is true, how do people come to these states of being? And how would one come out of these states? Is there a point where any attempt is hopeless?
In the doctors trials as a part of the Nuremberg trials, after World War II, some of the German scientists were so oblivious to the effect their experiments had on their subjects that they were wondering if they could complete their work. Many justified their actions as war time actions needed to help their soldiers survive. Or they saw nothing wrong with the painful experiments since their subjects were going to be executed anyway. These men didn't look evil, nor did they set out to be evil. Even at the moment of execution some of them still held to ideologies which convinced them of their innocence.
The one thing that really stands out for me in these rationalizations, is the lack of empathy for another person. Its evident that they didn't see their victims as human persons. It was evident, that for some, their ideology bent their ability to feel for another person. I can observe this same power of ideology to create suffering in radical Islamic suicide bombers or Christian crusaders or Stalin's revolutionaries. Or even closer to home, Abu Ghraib.
One of the dangers of rationalism is that once one makes a conclusion about the lack of value and humanity of an enemy or "other," most moral and empathetic restraints go away. Whether that rationalism is based on a holy book, spurious science, or a charismatic leader, it can still lead to terrible actions. The witch hunters of the middle ages saw their methods as the best that science and reason had to offer as contained in the Malleus Maleficarum.
I have come to believe that it is important to personally learn and to teach people how to feel skillfully. I believe that there is far more information and awareness in feeling than there is in thinking. Certain forms of rational debate can point out the absurdity of different beliefs, but this fails if the person lacks the intelligence to understand the argument. And yet even the most simple can recognize when they have been insulted. And it seems the most simple often understand when they are being loved and how to return love more skillfully than their "intelligent" counterparts. What I believe that is common to all definitions of evil is its evil because of its ability to cause suffering and destruction.
At the deepest level pain makes us aware that something harmful is happening. An awareness of the world around us makes us aware of pain in others. When we ignore this and rely only on that which appears to be logical or authoritative we have the potential of creating great harm. At the very least one should wait to discover why something is painful before proceeding to inflict it on someone. But if one isn't even aware of the feeling of pain, one wouldn't even pause to consider this information. As I have mentioned before in the philosophy of Jesus he refers to the awareness of pain in oneself as one basis of ethical behavior. The idea that we should do unto others as we would have them do to us. To me this is clearly a reference to the personal experiential feeling of being in the world. And yet so little is taught or encouraged in this realm of human awareness. The awareness of what it feels like to live in the world.
I think one of the dangers of our culture is our lack of appreciation for feelings. I can't think of an instance where having feelings ever harmed anyone. Actions certainly can harm people, but I don't believe that feelings can. Maybe a belief that feelings can harm may create a feeling of harm, but that is rooted in a cognitive process not a feeling one.
A couple examples of how we can teach that ideology is more important than our own sense of what is harmful can be found in the following videos. The first is a children's cartoon made by supporters of Hamas. This video shows a Hamas style lion King vanquishing rats characterized as Fatah. Or in this video they use a child's natural sense of injustice to implant an ideology. It is a video of the martyrdom of a Mickey Mouse like character.
Another example from a strict Calvinistic theology can be seen in this video. A little way into the video you can see a child singing a song about how God hates the world to the tune of Michael Jackson's We are the World.
These may seem extreme to some of you, but until recently, within a historical perspective, these would not seem unreasonable to large groups of people. Islamic extremists certainly are communicating to a large audience that agrees with them. You can see this revealed in some of the comments on these videos. On a smaller scale sayings within our culture reveal our condemnation of feelings. "Only babies cry." "You need to get over it." "I need to handle it." "I need to be strong." "He or she fell apart." Or someone had an emotional breakdown which simply means they cried. All these imply that having feelings is either a sign of weakness, mental instability, or irresponsibility. Often these feelings are the very vehicles of "getting over it." And they become blocked by judgements and cognitive "interventions" which have nothing to do with how the other person feels, but with our own discomfort with feeling.
So if there is evil present in the world, I believe it is simply another label for fear. When humanity is not valued maybe evil is based on the fear of being human.