The cognitive basis of good and evil

Michael Shermer, who writes the Skeptic column for Scientific American, and who is normally right on the mark has this to say about the concepts of Good and Evil:

‘The myth of good and evil is grounded in Christian theology and the belief that such forces exist independently of their carriers,’

You can read the full article – byline ‘It is too simple to blame evil people for horrifying acts of terror’ – <a href="
“>here. I don’t want to disagree with Shermer’s conclusions, but just nit-pick on this specific point. In effect, I think i totally disagree with the above statement – let’s call it the ‘Cultural Invention of Evil Theory’. Rather, and readers of Mind Hacks might have guessed, I believe seeing Good and Evil in the world is the result of a basis cognitive process which we we all share.

The myth of good and evil arises from a psychological bias we all have, and which in the social psychology biz is called the ‘the fundamental attribution error’. This is simply that when looking at other people’s behaviour we tend to over-emphasise inherent characteristics (eg “he didn’t do the washing up because he’s lazy”), while when looking at our own we tend to over-emphasise situational variables (“i didn’t do the washing up because i had to go to work and do lots of marking”). Why this exists is probably because although it is often wrong, it is an adaptive way to think about the causal world. When trying to understand your own behaviour it is easiest to look at the things that vary (ie the situation) and try and control that, but when looking at other people’s behaviour the major variable is which other person you are looking at. It doesn’t make it right, but it is just easier to see other people as Good, or Evil, or Lazy, or Clever than it is to take full account of the complexity of both their situation and their personality.

Surely that is sufficient reason to explain the persistence of notions of good and evil, and also helps avoid the problem of how non-Christian cultures come also to use the concepts. The cultural background just flavours a universal, a universal which arises from the information-mechanics of our cognitive apparatus.

2 thoughts on “The cognitive basis of good and evil”

  1. Kelly fights the battle of Good vs. Evil

    When you call someone “evil” what are you really saying? It’s not, “Well, in my humble opinion, a set of circumstances combined with the execution of cognitive processes which we we all share has caused you to commit an atrocious act of violence.”

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