A Response to John Gray on Evil.


John Gray's article ‘The Evil Within’ (the long read, The Guardian, Tues 21st Oct 2014: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/oct/21/-sp-the-truth-about-evil-john-gray) was fascinating, and in many respects convincing. I agree that we are not going to deal with ISIS by imagining (with Blair and Bush) that they can be destroyed.  However, nor will we succeed by siding with a lesser evil in order to defeat them, which seems to be what Gray is suggesting. This is a game which can only result in further chaos, as he himself shows with the examples of Iraq and Syria. In my view, rather than simply modify our dominant view of ‘evil’ we would be better off not being obsessed with it – whilst recognizing that people do too often behave in ‘evil’ ways. A much bolder and very different approach is needed, and surely it should be based on a desire for us all to survive and flourish despite our differences - though I suspect this is beyond the imagination of any of our leaders at present.


What I most strongly reject is Gray’s view that the tendency to violence and evil is a fundamental aspect of our nature.


I also disagree that those of us who do not emphasise the 'natural evil' in humans must invent some other evil (e.g. ‘capitalism’) to explain why so many people sometimes go along with evil. We can identify institutions and social practices that allow evil acts, without saying they are in themselves evil.


Whilst it would clearly be ridiculous to claim that humans are never violent, the psychotherapist Carl Rogers (in 'On Becoming a Person' Constable edition 2004, pp 90 - 91) argues that his experience shows that 'the innermost core of man's nature, the deepest layers of his personality, the base of his 'animal nature' is positive in nature - is basically socialized, forward-looking, rational and realistic.'


However, the generally accepted view (amongst therapists as well as lay people), as Rogers points out, and Gray confirms, is that man's basic nature is destructive (of others and of ourselves) and has to be kept under control. One reason why this view is so widespread is that we do often feel, and therapy reveals, inside ourselves, layers of destructiveness, violence and anger; and it is easy to mistake these feelings as somehow fundamental. And, I would add, when we think about the violence and destruction in the world, our first reaction is one of anger and a desire for revenge. But therapy – and experience – shows that we are most likely to feel violent and destructive (often of ourselves as well as of others) when we are afraid to feel the deeper layers of love and trust.


So, when we go deeper into ourselves, and as happens when therapists work with disturbed individuals, then we find – in Rogers’ words – that these 'untamed and unsocial feelings are neither the deepest nor the strongest, and that the inner core of man's personality is the organism itself, which is essentially both self-preserving and social.'


Gray calls on evolutionary psychology to support his case, but I would simply ask: why would a species evolve that was fundamentally self-destructive? The desire for preservation both of self and others seems to me to be a much more likely product of human evolution. This is what we should call on to build a more peaceful world.


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