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The best books on Cruelty and Evil

recommended by Paul Bloom

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion
by Paul Bloom


How do evil-doers justify their behaviour? A common view of evil sees dehumanisation as fundamental. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom argues, however, that the picture may not be so simple. The most callous acts of cruelty and evil involve recognising the human feelings of the victim, their ability to feel shame and humiliation.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion
by Paul Bloom

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How did you get interested in cruelty and evil?

I’ve always been interested in this topic, but I really began to explore it when I was writing my book Against Empathy. There is a widespread view that failing to put yourself in the shoes of another person—failing to empathise—leads to dehumanisation, and dehumanisation is at the heart of cruelty and evil. Since I was arguing in my book that we are morally better without empathy, this is an argument that I really had to wrestle with. So I talk a bit about this in the book, and, more recently, in an article in The New Yorker. I agree that dehumanisation often has terrible effects. But it turns out as well that evil is often a result of recognising another’s humanity, which is pretty much the opposite of the usual view.

This is to some extent a pessimistic conclusion. There are people who write as if all we need to do is recognise the human qualities in each other and violence and cruelty will magically come to an end and we’ll all live happily ever after. I wish this were true but I don’t think it is.

But isn’t it true that in many of the worst acts of cruelty in the Holocaust, for example, dehumanisation was a crucial part of the process? Propaganda portrayed Jews as vermin, camps replaced names with numbers, and so on.

Absolutely. But many of the evil acts that were performed relied on the Nazis recognising their victims’ capacity to feel human emotions, to feel shame or humiliation. That’s very different from thinking of someone as quite literally the equivalent of a rat. I think as well that a lot of the evil was rooted in seeing the Jews as moral agents—evil moral agents that deserved their fate—which again clashes with the idea that dehumanisation was at fault.

‘Evil’ sounds like a biblical term—something that comes from the Devil.

None of the authors of the books I’ve chosen see evil in those terms. They all use the word to describe extreme acts of cruelty without any religious connotations. They’re all interested in exploring why and how human beings do such terrible things to one another, and what can be done to curb that.

Your first book is a very famous one, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. As a journalist for the New Yorker, Arendt went to report on the trial of the notorious Nazi responsible for organising the trains that took people to their deaths at Auschwitz. The book was first published as essays in the New Yorker in 1963.

I hadn’t read Eichmann in Jerusalem until very recently. Obviously, I’d heard about it. I knew the gist of it. But it’s only recently that I’ve come to see what all the fuss is about.

“Evil is often a result of recognising another’s humanity, which is pretty much the opposite of the usual view.”

It’s a controversial book, of course, and very provocative. Arendt explains her famous idea of the banality of evil in relation to Eichmann and what he said at his trial. She suggests that the Nazis, like Eichmann, who were responsible for such evil acts were stupid, short-sighted and ordinary. They were clownish. Rather than reflecting malevolence, their actions were unthinking and routine. But she also makes claims about the complicity of Jews and others working with the Nazis, some of whom may have thought they were doing the best they could to rescue people, others who were acting out of self-interest and personal gain. She thought many more could have been saved if they hadn’t played along with the Nazis. And she also fumed against the hypocrisy of the Israelis, as with their outrage against the Nuremberg Laws, when their own laws didn’t recognise a marriage between a non-Jew and a Jew. No wonder her book provoked such a furious reaction.

But how typical was Eichmann? He was the arch-bureaucrat, sitting in his office, deciding how many ‘pieces’ (i.e. people) would be transferred to Auschwitz, on which train, on which day. That’s at quite a distance from the sorts of cruelty that were actually going on face-to-face in the camps. His evil might have been more banal because it was largely done at a distance.

Eichmann may not have been typical. Arendt may have put too much weight on his case. And there’s been recent research which suggests that he might not have been as stupid as he appeared at his trial—that this was in some way an act. So yes, the banality claim may have been overstated.

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In many ways, Arendt reminds me of Noam Chomsky, the way she puts her case so forcibly, not sparing anyone. Chomsky always comes out fighting, and Arendt is like that. And, like him, she puts her case too strongly at times. But I’d definitely recommend reading this book.

Your next choice is Evil: Inside Human Cruelty and Violence by Roy Baumeister.

Baumeister is an experimental psychologist. He takes evil to be intentionally harming another person who is undeserving of such treatment. His focus is on how the perpetrators of evil experience what they do, their perceptions of it. He argues that people who commit evil generally don’t see what they do as evil, but rather as some sort of justified response to a difficult situation.

In one fascinating set of experiments, he asked people to think about the worst thing that anyone has ever done to them, describe what happened, how they felt as victim of this, and so on. Then he asks people to think about the worst thing that they have ever done to someone else. The two get described in completely different terms. When evil is done to you, you see it as a terrible injustice, you see its effects as long-lasting. But when you describe something that you have done to someone else, there are always mitigating circumstances, explanations and justifications. The language is different. No matter how extreme the act of cruelty, the perpetrator’s story always introduces some factor that explains it: he was forced, or under great pressure, and besides, it wasn’t as serious as the victim says it is.

So an eye for an eye is not in the eye of the beholder.

Yes. The consequences of this are extremely serious. When one person is violent to another this sometimes leads to what the victim sees as a justifiable and proportionate retaliation; but in the eyes of the person whom he takes action against, that retaliation is going too far, and so it provokes an even greater counter-reaction. And so on. If Baumeister is right, the escalation of violence in these sorts of circumstances is inevitable since the recipient always sees the violence against him as worse than anything he had previously done.

There’s much more in the book than this, and I don’t agree with all of it. But Baumeister has lots of interesting ideas about violence and its causes.

What’s your third book choice?

David Livingstone Smith’s Less than Human. Smith, a philosopher, makes the best case for what you might see as the received opinion, the view that evil most often stems from dehumanisation. He’s also keen to show that the worst atrocities are committed by ordinary human beings, not by people radically different from us. We’ve already mentioned the Nazi propaganda depicting Jews as rats, as somehow subhuman and parasitic, but the same mechanism was going on when the Hutus described the Tutsi as cockroaches as a prelude to the Rwandan genocide, and so on for countless other cases.

“Without the distance of dehumanisation, real evil would be impossible for most of us. ”

Part of what Smith argues is that it is very difficult for most of us to kill or torture another person, and that we need to get away from the other person’s humanity in order to do that. Without the distance of dehumanisation, real evil would be impossible for most of us. So dehumanisation is a way of overcoming those inhibitions, and that’s the path to genocide.

That’s the received opinion about some of the worst atrocities, isn’t it, that they were only possible because the perpetrators refused to see the humanity in their victims, or were duped by propaganda into believing that a whole group of people were less than human? It doesn’t seem absurd to see dehumanisation as at the root of evil.

Yes. And I agree with Smith that much evil does arise from this. But that’s not the whole story. As I’ve suggested, some violence and cruelty relies on actually recognising people’s humanity. For instance, in parts of Europe racist fans throw bananas at African footballers or call them monkeys. But they obviously don’t literally believe that they’re monkeys: they wouldn’t go after a monkey and shout ‘monkey’ at it. These racists might seem to be dehumanising the footballers, but a different way of seeing this is to recognise that the taunts would only work on the assumption that the footballers can feel shame and anger at being described that way. The taunts can only work as taunts because the racists recognise the players’ humanity.

Your next book is James Dawes’s Evil Men. Why did you choose this one?

This is a book of interviews with Japanese perpetrators of extreme evil during the Sino-Japanese War. These men are elderly men, but in the interviews they describe rapes, horrific torture, mass murder, murders of children—absolutely gruesome stories. Dawes has a lot to say about this. At one point, he points out something which Baumeister also discusses, which is after you’ve done something once, it gets easier to do it again. Often these men say that it was tough to rape or maim or kill the first time, but after that, well, it went smoother. Dawes also talks about the role of groups where if everyone else is doing something, you want to do it too: you don’t want to be seen as weak, you don’t want to be seen as cowardly or not manly enough.

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What I found really interesting about the book, and why I put this on my list, is that he talks a lot about the fascination we have with these men, and in particular he talks about the moral issues we have when we struggle to understand them. One observation that he gives, which is very moving, is that these are nice guys: they are elderly Japanese men, they are very contrite about their actions, they’re often funny and gracious hosts, and interesting people to talk to. Dawes found himself liking many of them, and he talks about what that feels like. But he’s not in a place to forgive them—he wasn’t a victim, nothing was done to him. So how do we deal with this? He also talks more generally about the pornography of violence that draws us to atrocities—to the Holocaust, slavery, and so on.

Is it the same as our fascination with horror movies? Trying to imagine the worst that could happen?

He does make that connection. The response to horror movies, and our response to the Holocaust, or to Nanking, are not entirely dissimilar. There are similar itches that are being scratched. One might be for recreation and one might be for scholarly study or concern about the future of humanity, but there is a lot of common ground.

“He talks a lot about the fascination we have with these men, and in particular he talks about the moral issues we have when we struggle to understand them. ”

This is an extraordinary book that defies classification. He doesn’t have a single pitch or argument to make, but it is a beautiful exploration of evil, not just of what motivates the perpetrators, but also about how we see the perpetrators.

So its interest lies in the details that emerge in conversation, and about how the perpetrators understand what they have done. But surely much of that is a question of memory. It’s not as if he’s interviewing them as they come off the battlefield. The events they recount happened a long time in the past.

Yes. And he’s appropriately cautious about that. These stories have been told many times, and they’ve become sanitised in the retelling. What’s interesting is that sometimes new things emerge. He’d have these discussions, and at the beginning he’d ask, ‘Have you ever killed a child?’ And the person would say, ‘No. Never….I would never kill a child.” Then they would talk a bit more, and the old man would add: “But, well…there was this one time when a woman was holding a child, and she wouldn’t put him down, and she ran away, and then we shot and killed them both. But besides that one time, no! Well, maybe one other time…’ What’s revealed in this sort of conversation is fascinating and at the same time horrible.

As a philosopher I’m always surprised how little actual acts of real evil are discussed by philosophers. Philosophers frequently discuss thought experiments or hypothetical situations. Jonathan Glover, in his book Humanity, is exceptional in his level of specificity about real history. But on the whole philosophers shy away from the facts.

Yes. And in general, the same accusation could apply to experimental moral psychology. Philosophers and psychologists both like sanitised cases, clean examples. It’s not surprising that the trolley problem caught on so much in our field—it is simple, easy to understand, you can modify it in systematic ways, you don’t upset the undergraduates. But it might be too far from reality.

A related complaint is that philosophers and psychologists study, almost exclusively, interactions between strangers. But in the real world, moral questions often come up within families and other intimate relationships, and so we miss a lot of the complexities of actual morality, concerning obligations, promises, expectations and so on. It’s a shame that these sanitised cases with strangers have come to dominate our field.

Your final book is Kate Manne’s Down Girl, which does engage with specific real-life cases of the consequences of misogyny, many of which occur in the context of relationships. She’s not just interested in the abstract question of what misogyny is. She has a very interesting line on what misogyny is.

Agreed! This is a very timely book in the light of the current ‘Me Too’ movement. She describes sexual harassment and sexual assault, and she has a moving chapter on strangulation. She spends a lot of time on the case of Eliot Rogers, this man who felt he was always rejected by women, and then went on a shooting spree, killing many people, and finally killing himself. She describes these cases in some depth, and provides a really interesting analysis. I see this analysis as the mirror image of David Livingstone Smith’s, although they could both be right for different cases.

Manne’s proposal is that in cases of misogyny, it’s not that men don’t see women as people. It’s not that they lose control in some way. It’s rather that men are morally outraged. They expect things from women: they expect nurturance, they expect sex, they expect love, they expect care, and they get enraged when these expectations aren’t being met. So, for Manne, the husband who strangles his wife out of rage, it’s not that he doesn’t think of his wife as a person, it’s not that he’s lost control in some way; it’s rather that he is morally driven, he feels his wife has done something horribly wrong by not being a good wife and she deserves what’s coming to her.

And so Manne, very vividly and very powerfully, presents a important perspective on cruelty. Using the example of misogyny as a case study, she suggests that cruelty can be a moralistic act based on a certain ideology about how people should act. For Manne, misogyny is a belief that women should act a certain way towards men. When they don’t, violence and cruelty are often directed towards the women to punish them or to bring them in line. (She notes as well that certain positive feelings towards women could also reflect misogyny. If somebody is made Woman of the Year for supporting her husband, that also reflects the same ideology. But it’s cruelty that her book is mostly about.)

As I said, this is the mirror image of the very convenient, very palpable message in the dehumanisation work. What Manne is saying is that when you recognise people’s humanity—she links this with Peter Strawson’s notion of reactive attitudes—there are all sorts of moral risks. There’s a lovely passage on this in her book where she points out that to see someone as human means it is possible for that person to be a true friend or a beloved spouse, but it also means that he or she can compete with you, or disagree with you, or humiliate you, or betray you. Men and women often live together, and so you’re nose to nose with an independent cognitive agent, and this, along with misogyny, makes possible all sorts of cruelty and violence.

As I understand it, Manne’s claim is that misogyny is largely unconscious for the individual. There is a societal pressure that’s very strong that many men and women are indoctrinated into without realising it.

Yes. She calls misogyny ‘the law enforcement branch of the patriarchy’. It emerges from society. If her book has any weakness, and it’s a weakness that applies to many other books on the topic, it is that there is a lack of interest in the psychological mechanisms that underlie all of this. Manne doesn’t wrestle at all with the empirical evidence on the nature of aggression and bias, but focuses primarily on the broader philosophical arguments, and on real-world cases.

Isn’t that a deliberate decision, to step back and look at the broader question, treating misogyny as an ideology, and its inherence in society? No one has said ‘I’m going to build misogyny into the system’, but rather we are brought up in ways that implicitly endorse a view of what a woman should and should not do, which may not even be consistent with our conscious views. When women don’t follow this script, and do things they’re not supposed to, they get squashed by various people (usually men) in various ways. This ideology is something structural. The psychology is more about how this ideology is delivered, isn’t it?

Yes, definitely. But there are also the psychological issues of how it’s acquired, how it’s represented, and how people differ. Not everybody is equally misogynistic. Some people might show subtle implicit biases, others obvious and blatant ones. We may all be misogynists to some extent, but I’ve never strangled anybody, and I don’t think I ever would. There are all sorts of psychological questions that Manne, by choice, isn’t that interested in. That’s OK. It’s her book.

“For Manne, misogyny is a belief that women should act a certain way towards men. When they don’t, violence and cruelty are often directed towards the women to punish them or to bring them in line. ”

I resonate to her way of thinking because it chimes well with my own interest in the ‘moral’ quality of violence: when people who do bad things think they are doing the right thing, out of a sense that they are morally right. Morality explains a lot of the terrible things that we do to one another. This claim isn’t unique to Manne or to me, of course. Another book that could have ended up on my list is Virtuous Violence by Alan Fiske and Tage Rai which argues that a lot of violence is motivated by moral principles—it summarises a lot of interesting research in this area.

There’s a lot more to say to say about evil and cruelty, of course. For instance, some people’s cruelty comes very directly from physiological causes such as different forms of brain damage. Also, even for those of us who are neurologically fine, a great cause of cruelty is simply lack of impulse control. Most of us have cruel thoughts to one another which we don’t act on. But sometimes we slip.

You’ve had to choose five books and we’ve gone down quite a dark road. I know you want to end by mentioning a few books that take a more optimistic line.

If you want a palate-cleanser to think about humanity at its best after the more pessimistic outlooks I’ve been discussing, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature is a tremendously optimistic book. He describes a lot of cruelty though the ages, but argues convincingly that we’ve been getting better and better. (He’s followed this up with Enlightenment Now, which I’m currently reading.) And Larisssa McFarquar in her book Strangers Drowning has a series of case studies of real good-hearted individuals: some of them are effective altruists, some are driven by religious convictions, and some are just really nice people, who give their kidneys to strangers, and won’t order a Martini because the money spent on it could go to feed the poor, and so on. She begins by taking a bemused view of these moral saints, but by the end she’s not cynical: she says these people really are good people, they really are leading good lives. Reading about all these kind people doing kind things is a great antidote to reading all the descriptions of torture and murder and rape in the books I’m recommending!

Interview by Nigel Warburton

March 9, 2018

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Paul Bloom

Paul Bloom

Paul Bloom is the Brooks & Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology & Cognitive Science at Yale University. He is the author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, and How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. In 2017, he received the Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize for his investigations into how children develop a sense of morality.

Paul Bloom

Paul Bloom

Paul Bloom is the Brooks & Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology & Cognitive Science at Yale University. He is the author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, and How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. In 2017, he received the Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize for his investigations into how children develop a sense of morality.