What Causes Evil? The 2 Contributing Factors

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Humankind" by Rutger Bregman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What causes evil? Why do people carry out evil acts against their own kind?

Throughout history, humans have enslaved each other, fought brutal wars, and committed genocide. At the same time, humans committed many great deeds of kindness and compassion. This begs the question: Are humans good or evil by nature? According to historian Rutger Bregman, human nature is peaceful, and we commit evil actions for two main reasons: 1) to protect our in-group, and 2) to contribute to the “greater good.”

Let’s consider each argument in more detail.

Reason #1: We Look Out for Our Own Group

Bregman suggests that we commit evil due to our tendency to protect the people in our immediate circle at the cost of others. Biologically, this desire to look out for our own group is due to our high levels of the hormone oxytocin, which regulates love. In most cases, this is a positive thing: It allows us to learn from one another and develop relationships.

However, our high levels of oxytocin have a downside. According to Bregman, research suggests oxytocin only enhances connection to people who are familiar to us—people who we know or who look, talk, and act like us. Furthermore, oxytocin gives us an aversion towards strangers. This aversion can make us support the people in our group at the cost of others. It can lead us to villainize strangers and see them as less than human, making us more likely to commit violence against them.

(Shortform note: Scientific studies confirm Bregman’s claims that oxytocin increases trust of those who are in our group and decreases trust of those who aren’t. Furthermore, research shows that oxytocin has several other positive and negative effects that Bregman doesn’t mention. For example, in addition to helping develop trust, evidence suggests that oxytocin can improve social skills, and researchers theorize that a dose of oxytocin could help people with autism feel more comfortable in social situations. In terms of the negative effects, researchers have found that too much oxytocin can lead to increased stress and social anxiety.)

Fortunately, we can fight this aversion by getting to know people from other groups. Bregman explains that frequently interacting with a diverse group of people drastically decreases prejudice and hate. Having friends from different backgrounds helps us go beyond stereotypes and see those different from ourselves as fully human.

Reason #2: We Follow Harmful Impulses

According to Bregman, human nature is inherently good. What causes evil is our tendency to follow two harmful impulses: the desire to contribute to the greater good and the desire to conform. Let’s examine these two impulses in detail.

First, Bregman argues that we commit evil when we think it will lead to a greater good. This “greater good” can vary based on the situation: We might see cruelty as a necessary step in creating a better country or developing scientific knowledge.

(Shortform note: Bregman presents acting for the greater good as a negative. However, some schools of philosophy suggest that we should always act with the greater good in mind. For instance, utilitarianism suggests that the moral choice is that which creates pleasure for as many people as possible. According to utilitarians, considering the greater good helps us see the broader consequences of our actions, thereby making the world a better place. For example, using plastic water bottles may be more convenient for each individual, but when we take a step back, we realize that it isn’t good for the world as a whole.)

The second impulse that can lead us to commit evil is our desire to conform. As we discussed earlier, humans evolved to form groups and work together, making us crave companionship. Bregman explains that this desire for companionship can outweigh our moral sense of right and wrong. For example, a gang of bullies might follow their leader not because they’re inherently cruel people, but because they want to be part of a group that accepts them.

Bregman notes that these impulses don’t excuse evil behavior. Instead, he sees them as ways of understanding why we can be so cruel and selfish so that we can act more kindly in the future. Moreover, he believes that we can fight these impulses through practice. By developing skills such as compassion and resistance, we can stand up for what we believe in.

How to Develop Compassion and Resistance

While he emphasizes practicing compassion and resistance, Bregman doesn’t go into much detail on practical ways to develop these skills. Here are some ways of doing so:

Use meditation to practice compassion. Following “loving-kindness” meditation can help you extend the compassion you feel for your loved ones to the broader world. In this meditation, you think of a person who you care about and imagine the things that you love about them—for example, the way they smile, their gestures, or their kindness. You wish them happiness in your mind. Then, you think about someone who you don’t know as well—perhaps a stranger that held the door for you earlier in the day—and wish them happiness. Finally, you extend that feeling of compassion to all humans.

Band together to resist conformity. As Bregman notes, one of the reasons why we’re susceptible to evil is our impulse to go along with a group. However, you can also use this impulse to create change and fight negative behavior. For example, if you see someone being bullied, communicate with others around you and make a plan to intervene.
What Causes Evil? The 2 Contributing Factors

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  • Why humans are fundamentally good, not evil
  • How the Stanford Prison Experiment was misleading
  • How recent studies have debunked "Killer Ape Theory"

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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