See No Evil

He may have left his heart in San Francisco, but that eighty-five-year-old crooner, famous for that song, seems to have left his brain there too. That would be Tony Bennett – out promoting his newest smash-hit album and simply forgetting there are just some things you don’t say:

Tony Bennett has apologized for remarks he made during an interview with Howard Stern Monday. Talking about 9/11, Bennett said the United States caused the attacks.

In a statement issued late Tuesday, according to, Bennett said, “There is simply no excuse for terrorism and the murder of the nearly 3,000 innocent victims of the 9/11 attacks on our country. My life experiences – ranging from the Battle of the Bulge (in World War II) to marching with Martin Luther King – made me a lifelong humanist and pacifist, and reinforced my belief that violence begets violence and that war is the lowest form of human behavior.

“I am sorry if my statements suggested anything other than an expression of my love for my country, my hope for humanity and my desire for peace throughout the world.”

Well, that certainly covers all the bases, but it leaves you sounding like a Miss America contestant blithering about World Peace and cute puppies. Still one should know Americans like cute puppies. And you don’t go here of all places:

“They flew the plane in, but we caused it,” Bennett told Stern, according to the New York Daily News. The “they” in his statement is presumably terrorists. Bennett also says former president George W. Bush admitted to him that the war in Iraq was a mistake. At an event at the Kennedy Center to honor Bennett, the singer says Mr. Bush told him, “I think I made a mistake,” according to the Daily News.

Maybe Bennett has been listening to those folks who know the Middle East well and write books about the fallout from our policies there and our support of some pretty nasty regimes over all the years. That tends to tick people off, and those ticked-off people can be exploited for all sorts of ends. America had never been terribly popular there, and what we do has consequences. Everything has consequences. Or, alternatively, those guys were pure evil and did something purely evil, just because they’re evil. And we did nothing wrong over there ever – in 1953 the CIA did not engineer the overthrow of the new democratically elected government and bring back the Shah. Or maybe the CIA did, but that was done for them, for their own good or something. America has chosen how to think about this. And yes, there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and even Bush finally said, no, Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11 at all. But as Saddam Hussein was evil, and Iraq was part of the Axis of Evil, there was no mistake at all. And Bush never said any such thing to Tony Bennett:

A spokesman for Mr. Bush denied that to the Daily News, telling the newspaper, calling the account “flatly wrong.”

“President Bush has always felt, and consistently expressed, that America is safer without Saddam Hussein in power,” spokesman Freddy Ford said to the Daily News. “He has never said the decision to liberate Iraq was a mistake to Mr. Bennett or to anyone.”

America has chosen how to think about this. A good number of people agree with Bush, although fewer and fewer as the years pass and we have time to think about what we’ve done. But Tony Bennett should have known better. There is evil and there is good, and we’re good and those other guys are evil. Why over-think this? Who cares about the motivations of evil people? Do they even have any motivation for anything they do? Hitler was evil. What more do you need to know, that he had an unhappy childhood? And that fellow, Anders Behring Breivik, who killed all those young people in Norway – do you really care what motivated him? You don’t try to understand evil people, you punish them. Liberals go on and on about the causes of crime, finding out what makes people do these things, and fixing things, removing or at least ameliorating the causes of what ends up being evil. And conservatives roll their eyes. Who cares? You punish criminals. You don’t try to understand them. That’s a fool’s errand. And that is what led Tony Bennett astray – that and all the mounting evidence that what we had done in the Middle East over all the years actually had consequences.

It all come down to how you think about evil, and conservatives saying those damned liberals don’t even belief in evil itself, and liberals saying that those damned conservatives live in a dream world where they think what we do never could ever have negative consequences, consequences sometimes verging on the catastrophic. And this dispute will, of course, never end – probably because defining just what is evil is hard. What does the word mean anyway?

And that’s where Ron Rosenbaum comes in. Rosenbaum has given us The Shakespeare Wars and, more importantly, Explaining Hitler – there are people who do wonder how he became what he became. And Rosenbaum’s latest is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III – “After examining and reluctantly dismissing the prospects for nuclear disarmament, the author concludes with a stark warning: ‘It’s all about luck now. I’m a pessimist.'”

And now, in Slate, he covers the possible end of evil itself – as neuroscientists are now suggesting there is no such thing, or when you think about it and do the science, you pretty much empty the word of useful meaning, where you have “reduced the notion of a numinous nonmaterial malevolent force to a glitch in a tangled cluster of neurons, the brain.”

He cites books like Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain with their “disdain for metaphysical evil, which is regarded as an antiquated concept that’s done more harm than good.” Maybe the time has come to replace metaphysical terms like evil with physical explanations. You look for malfunctions or malformations in the brain:

Of course, people still commit innumerable bad actions, but the idea that people make conscious decisions to hurt or harm is no longer sustainable, say the new brain scientists. For one thing, there is no such thing as “free will” with which to decide to commit evil. (Like evil, free will is an antiquated concept for most.) Autonomous, conscious decision-making itself may well be an illusion. And thus intentional evil is impossible.

And the neuroscientists with their fMRIs – all the brain imaging:

And in reducing evil to a purely neurological glitch or malformation in the wiring of the physical brain, in eliminating the element of freely willed conscious choice, have neuroscientists eliminated as well “moral agency,” personal responsibility? Does this “neuromitigation” excuse – “my brain made me do it,” as critics of the tendency have called it – mean that no human being really wants to do ill to another? That we are all innocent, Rousseauian beings, some afflicted with defects – “brain bugs” as one new pop-neuroscience book calls them – that cause the behavior formerly known as evil?

Are those who commit acts of cruelty, murder, and torture just victims themselves – of a faulty part in the head that might fall under factory warranty if the brain were a car?

And Rosenbaum has experience with this:

It’s a quest I examined in Explaining Hitler: the way the varieties of 20th-century psychological “science” sought to find some physiological, developmental, sexual, or psychoanalytic cause for Hitler’s crimes. (One peer-reviewed paper sought to trace Hitler’s evil to a mosquito bite – to the secondary sequelae of mosquito-borne encephalitis which were known to cause profound personality changes as long as a decade after being contracted in the trenches of World War I.)

It would be consolatory if not comforting if we could prove that what made Hitler Hitler was a malfunction in human nature, a glitch in the circuitry, because it would allow us to exempt “normal” human nature (ours for instance) from having Hitler potential. This somewhat Pollyannaish quest to explain the man’s crimes remains counterintuitive to many. I recall the late British historian and biographer of Hitler, Alan Bullock, reacting to the claims of scientism by exclaiming to me vociferously: “If he isn’t evil, then who is? … If he isn’t evil the word has no meaning.”

Well, that is the problem:

To read the mainstream media commentary on the Breivik case, for instance, is to come upon, time after time, the word “evil.” Not just that the acts were evil, but that he, Breivik was, as a Wall Street Journal columnist put it, “evil incarnate.”

But what exactly does that mean? The incarnation of what? Satan? The word “incarnation,” even without explicit religious context, implies, metaphorically at least, the embedding of a metaphysical force in a physical body. One can understand the scientific aversion to this as a description of reality. But evil as a numinous force abides. It is not surprising that Pope Benedict issued a statement following the attacks in Norway calling on everyone to “escape from the logic of evil.” (Although what exactly is that “logic”?)

The Pope says evil is logical, or has its own logic, or something, but Rosenbaum cites the devout and quite vocal and superbly logical atheist Christopher Hitchens invoking “evil” in his odd obituary for Osama bin Laden. Hitchens says he really wishes he could avoid using “that simplistic (but somehow indispensable) word.” But what are you going to do? Hitchens ends up calling whatever motivated bin Laden a “force” that “absolutely deserves to be called evil.”

But that brings us no closer to defining what evil is. Does it exist in the material or nonmaterial world? The issue is, really, what we are actually taking about:

That is the real “problem of evil” (or, to use the technical term philosophers employ for conscious, freely-willed, evil-doing: “wickedness”). We tend to believe it exists: Popular culture has no problem with it, giving us iterations from Richard III to Darth Vader; politicians use it promiscuously (“the axis of evil”). But even religious thinkers continue to debate what it is – and why a just and loving God permits evil and the hideous suffering it entails to prevail so often, or even – if they shift the blame to us (because God gave man free will to sin) – why God couldn’t have created a human nature that would not so readily choose genocide and torture.

But of course this is nothing new:

This argument has been going on for more than a millennium, at least since Augustine proclaimed that evil was in the realm of “non-being,” which seems to some a great evasion.

Ah, but now we have pop neuroscience, and British Professor of Psychopathology, Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, the cousin of that Borat fellow) with his book The Science of Evil – although Rosenbaum suggest he’s just changing its name:

“My main goal,” says Baron-Cohen, “is replacing the unscientific term ‘evil’ with the scientific term ’empathy.'” What he means is that instead of calling someone evil we should say they have no empathy.

Baron-Cohen goes to great lengths to posit an “empathy circuit” in the brain, whose varying “degrees” of strength constitutes a spectrum, ranging from total, 100 percent empathy to “zero degrees of empathy.”

This empathy circuit, he tells us, consists of 13 specific regions of the brain involved in the generation of non-evil choices, among them “the medial prefrontal cortex,” “the inferior frontal gyrus,” and “the posterior superior temporal sulcus.”

Ideally all of these act together empathetically to defeat “single minded focus,” which appears to be Baron-Cohen’s explanation for what was previously called evil. Single-mindedness is the inability to “recognize and respond” to the feelings of others. A healthy empathy circuit allows us to feel others’ pain and transcend single-minded focus on our own.

But Rosenbaum sees some problems here:

This theory does however seem to carry a presumption that when one “recognizes and responds,” one will do so in warm and fuzzy ways. But what about those who “recognize and respond” to others’ feelings with great discernment – and then torture them? It happens.

Rosenbaum also finds this all too mechanistic:

He characterizes those who lack empathy as having “a chip in their neural computer missing.” He tells us “empathy is more like a dimmer switch than an all-or-none switch.” The big problem here is that by reducing evil to a mechanical malfunction in the empathy circuit, Baron-Cohen also reduces, or even abolishes, good. No one in this deterministic conceptual system chooses to be good, courageous, or heroic. They just have a well-developed empathy circuit that compels them act empathetically – there’s no choice or honor in the matter.

Well, yes, if you use this physical mechanistic model, if there is no evil then there can be no such thing as good. And anyway, to Rosenbaum, this seems more a semantic trick than a scientific discovery. And he points to a collection of academic papers from MIT Press called Neuroethics:

A number of papers in Neuroethics pour cold water on the triumphalism of the giddy new pop-sci brain books. It makes clear there is a debate within the neuroscience profession about what exactly all those impressive-looking fMRI images tell us. And these “neurocritics” or “neuroskeptics” warn about the consequences for acting too quickly on these claims. …

The “Brain Overclaim” paper by Stephen Morse of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Neuroscience and Society is a tongue-in-cheek “diagnostic note” on the grandiosity of the assumptions of the brain-book fad, mainly concerned about the way they have been creeping into jurisprudence. fMRIs have made their way into a Supreme Court opinion this year, for instance; Justice Stephen Breyer cited “cutting edge neuroscience” in his dissent to a ruling denying the right of California to ban violent video games, because the otherwise-pro-free-speech justice was alarmed at neuroscientific studies that claim such games could create mental pathways for actual violence.

But Morse points out a fundamental flaw in the logic of all this pop neuroscience:

Despite all the astonishing advances in neuroscience, however, we still know woefully little about how the brain enables the mind and especially about how consciousness and intentionality can arise from the complicated hunk of matter that is the brain. … Discovering the neural correlates of mental phenomena does not tell us how these phenomena are possible.


In other words, correlation doesn’t always equal causation: We may know the 13 regions that light up on an fMRI when we feel “empathy” (or fail to light up when we choose evil) but that doesn’t explain whether this lit-up state indicates they are causing empathy or just reflecting it.

The problem of evil – and moral responsibility – is thus inseparable from what is known in the philosophical trade as “the hard problem of consciousness.” How does the brain, that electrified piece of meat, create the mind and the music of Mozart, the prose of Nabokov? Where is consciousness, anyway?

You might want to read the rest of the Rosenbaum item on that – it’s fascinating, although a tad arcane. There’s the “quarter-century-old experiment by Benjamin Libet, which purported to reveal that apparently conscious decisions are actually made unconsciously – pre-consciously – some 500 milliseconds (half a second) before the illusion of a conscious decision is made conscious.” That has vast implications, if you choose to think about it. But how did you choose? Maybe we ought to act as if we had free will to choose good or evil and be done with it. And the review of all those saying that soon we’ll know just who has a defective brain, and thus be able to keep them off the streets, before they’ve done anything evil, is rather depressing. Rosenbaum says these are evil ideas, although research is always a good thing:

As for evil itself, the new neuroscience is unlikely to end the debate, but it may cause us to be more attentive to the phenomenon. Perhaps evil will always be like the famous Supreme Court pronouncement on pornography. You know it when you see it. I don’t like its imprecision, but I will concede I don’t have a better answer. Just that we can do better than the mechanistic, deterministic, denial of personal responsibility the neuroscientists are offering to “replace” evil with.

Yes, you can talk about sociopathy or psychopathy or zero degrees of empathy and all sorts of things, but that Breivik kept shooting. If we can’t call him evil then what do we call him?

And now you see Tony Bennett’s problem. He inadvertently stepped into a controversy that has been going on forever. It’s best to just sing.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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