Books

Book Review: Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy F. Baumeister

Evil is in the eyes of the beholder, and it’s relative to the circumstances. Baumeister looks evil through the eyes of the perpetrator to understand what leads to violence and other horrendous acts which cause suffering to others. He writes that to understand evil and cruelty, we need to abandon the notion that evil acts are one-sided and that the perpetrator is this mythical evil with inherited badness. He goes on explaining that circumstances affect our actions, and also, that nothing is unilateral. Victims aren’t as blame-free as we or themselves think which doesn’t mean that they deserve what they got but to understand why evil things happen we need to abandon our biases towards the perpetrators and victims. He writes: “Why then, is there evil: crime, violence, oppression, cruelty, and the rest? As we have seen, there is no single or simple answer. Evil does not exist in terms of solitary actions by solitary individuals. Perpetrators and victims—and in many cases, bystanders or observers, too—are necessary to the vast majority of evil acts. Evil is socially enacted and constructed. It does not reside in our genes or in our soul, but in the way we relate to other people.”

Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty is a good book. It goes over the basic causes of evil in the individual and national level. The four major root causes are material gain (money and power), threatened egotism (high self-esteem), idealism (the end justifies the means), and pursuing sadistic pleasure (don’t worry this is darn rare). Now you might think what point there is to read the book if I revealed the reasons for evil. The importance of the book is in the explanations, examples, and the studies mentioned. Baumeister goes over what leads to what and why. His argumentation is good, however, the examples left me horrified at times, especially with the chapters handling sadistic tendencies. His first example blew me away, but I won’t reveal it here as it’s something which will stop you when you start to read and make you think evil from a different perspective. If you are interested in human nature and what we all are capable of doing, then read this book. It’s slow to read and leans heavily on research, but that is a good thing. So it should be.

I leave you with one more quote: “We are past the point at which an explanation in terms of either innate nature or socializing culture can completely explain what is known about human aggression. Both extreme views are untenable. Violence and aggression cannot be fully explained by pointing simply to instincts or heredity. It is clear that much aggression is learned and that most is specific to particular situations. Nature does not program most mammals to kill one another, and the awesome carnage of the twentieth century suggests that the process of civilizing the human animal has, if anything, increased in rates of violent crime and similar indices of evil also suggests that culture plays a powerful role. A sobering look at some other facts also makes in implausible to chalk up all human violence up to culture and socialization. Social structures can increase or decrease violence and other evils within certain limits, but no one has come close to eliminating it. Contrary to some idealistic fantasies, children do not need to be taught to hate and prejudice: They are all too ready to pick on the one kid who is different or to reject the children in the other group.”

All hope is not lost. Baumeister suggests that key to decreased violence is a culture which teaches self-control. But he notes that we will have a rocky future ahead with overpopulation, the rise of idealism, and rise of egoism. Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty isn’t a feel-good book, but it’s necessary for understanding why violence and cruelty continue existing in our societies.

P.S. Sorry about the lecture-kind book review, I found the message of the book too relevant to be ignored with the current trends in the world.

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