CAMBRIDGE – Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has a problem with me again. The government-controlled national television station recently broadcast an illegally taped private phone conversation in which I proposed a study to explore how to rescue the Venezuelan economy by leveraging the support of the international community. The government unsuccessfully edited the recording to make what was said sound nefarious, lied about the conversation’s meaning and about me, and plans to prosecute me.
This got me thinking about the eternal problem of evil. Is it entirely relative, or are there objective grounds to characterize a behavior or act as evil? Do all confrontations occur between legitimate parties – with, say, one person’s terrorist being another’s freedom fighter – or can we say that some fights really are between good and evil?
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As the son of Holocaust survivors, I have always had an intuitive aversion to moral relativism.
But what objective grounds are there to say that the Nazis were evil? As Hannah Arendt famously pointed out, people like Adolf Eichmann were plentiful and “neither perverted nor sadistic”; rather, “they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” A similar normality emerges from Thomas Harding’s portrait of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, a man proud of having excelled at his assigned task.
So what do we mean by evil in the first place?
Moral philosophy has taken two very different approaches to this question. For some, the goal is to find universal principles from which to derive moral judgments: Kant’s categorical imperative, Bentham’s utilitarian principle, and John Rawls’s veil of ignorance are some of the best-known examples.
For others, the key is to understand why we have moral sentiments in the first place. Why have our brains evolved to generate feelings of empathy, disgust, indignation, solidarity, and pity?
David Hume and Adam Smith pioneered this way of thinking, which eventually spawned the fields of evolutionary and moral psychology.
According to this latter view, moral sentiments evolved to sustain human cooperation. We are programmed by our genes to feel concern for babies and empathy for people in pain. We seek others’ recognition and avoid their rejection. We feel better about ourselves when we do good and worse when we do bad. These are the underpinnings of our unconscious moral sense.
As a consequence, I doubt that any modern society has ever broadly supported what they saw as evil. Events like the Holocaust or the genocides in Ukraine (1932-1933), Cambodia (1975-1979), or Rwanda (1994) have been based either on secrecy or on the dissemination of a distorted worldview designed to make evil appear good.
Nazi propaganda blamed Jews for everything: Germany’s defeat in World War I, universal moral values that prevented the Aryan race from exerting its superiority, and both communism and capitalism. Ukrainians were accused of being Polish spies, kulaks, Trotskyites, and whatever else Stalin could invent.
The spread of evil requires lies, because lies form the basis of the worldview that makes evil seem good. But the dependence of big evil on big lies gives us a chance to fight back.
The biologist Martin Nowak has argued that the only way humans have been able to sustain cooperation is by developing cheap ways to punish misbehavior. To discourage A from hurting B, the reaction of C can be important, because if A knows that C will punish him for what he does to B, he might think twice before hurting B.
But if punishment is risky or costly for C, she may not do much to A, making A feel unconstrained. But if C can punish A in a cheap and even enjoyable way, the threat to A may be more substantial.
According to this view, the need to solve this conundrum is the evolutionary basis of gossip and reputation. Humans love to gossip, and gossip can harm our reputation, which in turn affects how others treat us. So punishment through gossip is both cheap and pleasant – and A’s fear of becoming the subject of gossip by C may be enough to deter bad behavior toward B.
This opens an important avenue for the control of evil. As US Senator and Harvard professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts.” So one way to contain evil is by attacking the lies on which it is based and condemning those who propound them.
In the US, there is a natural tendency to punish political candidates when they lie, but mostly about their personal peccadillos. It would be great, for example, if Donald Trump’s calumnies about Mexicans made him unelectable. If a country’s political culture is such that all agree on condemning intentional lies and liars, especially when their goal is to promote hatred, a country may avoid big evil.
But this is not the case in Venezuela. Its government has run the country’s economy and society into the ground, overseeing the world’s steepest decline in output, highest inflation rate, and second highest murder rate, not to mention shortages beyond compare. And now it is systematically lying about the causes of the mess it created and inventing scapegoats.
Ricardo Hausmann is Professor of the Practice of Economic Development at Harvard University, where he is also Director of the Center for International Development.
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