The Evil Self: Cruelty and Alibi

What do we mean by evil and cruelty? The word cruelty from the Latin means unfeeling. It is related to crudus meaning rough, raw and bloody. The act of cruelty can be deceptive. One can be cruel without leaving visible bruises and spilling blood.

            How do we resist cruelty? Can resistance take place without revenge and retribution? How would such resistance be ethical? To resist means to take a stand rather than simply crawl away.

            To be cruel means that we take pleasure in hurting others and making them suffer. There is something within our psyche; a psychic cruelty that loves to inflict suffering. The little boy with the magnifying glass frying ants on the driveway; the little girl that says to her brother, “She is not your mother” attests to the beginnings of being-cruel.

            What is the link between cruelty and the human? We are I think, the cruel animal. We must, I think, learn to resist that within us that desires to spill blood. In this resistance, there is no room for alibi or excuses. Alibi means excuse. It is Latin for “another place” Alibi means elsewhere. What is your alibi, your excuse, your elsewhere that cannot connect you to the scene of the crime. As humans, we always seem to be elsewhere, never here, always ignoring what takes place in front of us, next to us.

            What is to be done? How does one act or react when faced with the cruel events of our time? The cruelest of all weapons is the human mind that feeds off its own programming. Despite thousands of years of evolution, it is still crawling in the mud of its reptilian past. It is this human mind that perpetuates cruelty in the way it treats the other- with starvation, poisoning, manufactured poverty, disease, with weapons designed to maim and disfigure, with flamethrowers, napalm and cluster bombs.

            Can we live without an alibi, without the statement, “ I did not know this would happen.?” Can we begin to speak honestly, without euphemism’s such as, “ We weren’t really torturing the prisoners, we were simply entertaining our guests.”

            Plato argued that laughter involves taking pleasure in one’s superiority over another. Cruelty smiles over suffering. It laughs over pain as it urges us to mirror Jack Bauer who does the good while performing evil. Long before 24 became after dinner viewing, the taxi driver paved the way to the apocalypse.

            Travis sees himself as a cowboy confronting the hostile wilderness of New York’s concrete jungle. New Yorkis the big apple, full of sin, slime and sewers. The earth has often been described as a playground for the devil. In Taxi Driver, the devil is portrayed as a politician who will lead the mob of “good people” campaigning on his behalf into the Promised Land.

            The taxi driver embarks on a holy war against the flesh, only after getting his fill of Swedish porn. From the front seat of his cab, he is like Noah in his ark, riding out the wrath of God’s righteous rain.

            He is the prophet, the avenging angel who wants to assassinate the Senator. Blundering, he makes his stand to save the girl, his little red riding hood from the bad wolf pimp. Denied recognition and praise for defendingAmericafrom the communists inVietnam, the taxi driver wants recognition for cleaning up the streets. He takes his cue from the god of the Old Testament who destroyed the world in order to secure goodness.

            As Travis goes back to the brothel to save the girl, he murders the pimps and gangsters. Badly wounded, he taunts the police to shoot him. The police always arrive late on the scene. They witness the scene of his “justice.” The savage super-hero is bleeding- his guns as empty as his mind. The newspapers make him into a hero or perhaps he makes himself into a hero as he continues to write his own script. The parents of the runaway girl remain eternally thankful. They are happy for his vengeance.

            Within the philosophy of religion, theodicy explores the problem of evil. Evil is defined as what is vicious, wicked, cruel and defective. Evil results in injury harm and ruin. Evil reveals that there is a fault; a gap, a failure that may lead one to believe that the world we inhabit is not fully formed. It is as if the “world’s worst handyman” created it. It is still rough, raw, bloody and gruesome. It causes us to shudder in horror.

            The problem of evil was first formulated by the philosopher Epicurus. The argument states: If an all powerful, good and all knowing god exists, then evil does not. There is evil in the world. Therefore, an all-powerful, all good, all knowing god does not exist. Thus, the existence of an all-good god and the existence of evil is a contradiction. There have been a number of theological solutions to the problem of evil.St. Augustineargued that evil is simply an absence of the good. Evil is not a thing that exists independently. This raises the issue of why could not god have created the things that are lacking in the world? Some argue that god allows evil to be done in order to have the greater good of free will. The theologian John Hick argues that evil is a means to the good. We can realize that things are imperfect and then desire to make them better. Evil Hicks thinks, gives us the opportunity to grow. The Gnostics held that evil is due to the world created by an imperfect god. If this is the case, then Leibniz’s assertion that this is the best of all possible worlds is absurd. If a world where children are murdered, where billions have been murdered in wars, starved, gassed and tortured is the best of all possible worlds, then I would be fearful to see the worst of all possible worlds.

            For theorists such as Hannah Arendt, who studied totalitarian regimes, evil is banal. She argues that fanatics and monsters did not commit the great evils in history but by ordinary people who thought, what they were doing was normal. Her thesis is confirmed by the experiments carried out by Milgram and others.

            I think that the neurologist Paul MacLean provides a clear solution to the problem of evil that need not bring God or the devil into the drama. MacLean with his theory of the triune brain shows that our skull contains three distinct brains. The oldest brain, the R-complex or Reptilian brain consists of the brain stem and cerebellum is rigid, obsessive, compulsive, ritualistic and paranoid. This reptile brain is filled with ancient memories and keeps repeating the same patterns and behaviours. It does not learn from its mistakes. It is this part of the brain that is “cold blooded and without feeling. The second brain- the Mammalian brain is concerned with emotions, instincts, feeding, fleeing, fighting and fornicating. This part of the brain is known as the limbic system. The third part of the brain is the neo-cortex or rational brain that contains the higher cognitive functions. This brain takes up two thirds of the total brain mass. The cortex is divided into right and left hemispheres and is responsible for abstract thought and language. Maclean confirms what philosophers like Plato have long believed, namely that for the most part, appetites rule over reason. Of course, the reptile cannot be blamed for being reptilian. We do not say, “You evil snake, stop injecting me with venom.” But I think, we can blame humans who act like reptiles. Here it is not so much that they allow their primitive brain to control their actions. Rather, the reptile brain of serial killers and others who perform acts of evil have used the power of reason for non-compassionate ends. This type of reptile-human that can both think abstractly and then engage in acts of terror is precisely the in-human human. The activity of this creature has nothing to do with gods or devils.

            Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress, writes, “we are at best the heirs of many ruthless victories and at the words the heirs of genocide. We may well be descendants from humans who repeatedly exterminated rival humans.” 31. Is it simply the case as Wright asserts, “we are running twenty-first century software on a hardrive last upgraded 50,000 years ago or more.” 35. Do we simply explain away our cruelty by saying it is in our genetic make-up?

            A recent episode of criminal minds shows us what is at stake. The FBI profilers are after two men who have been hunting humans for sport. These serial killers resemble vampires that happily pursue their desire without any inner conflict. After capturing and killing the killers, the FBI agents have an epiphany while flying home on their government plane. They wonder, like Van Helsing, the vampire hunter if they are just like the serial killers they hunt down. Both the serial killer and the FBI agents are killers but the FBI agents see themselves as killing for the sake of the good. This is the contradiction of ethics that we need to think through.


About Mark Zlomislic

Philosopher. Writer. Artist. My Studio/Gallery Inscape Fine Art is located in Cambridge, Ontario. Viewing by Appointment Only. Please email:
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