There was an article in the Telegraph on Tuesday, 8th March, with the headline: “Scientists pinpoint part of brain that hides the ‘root of all evil””.
According to the article “the part of the brain that switches on before aggressive behaviour is known anatomically as the ventrolateral part of the ventromedial hypothalamus, or VMHvl, because of its central location inside the brain on the underside of the hypothalamus.”
This was followed by an article in the same newspaper yesterday by Brian Masters (author of a book about the serial killer, Dennis Nilsen) under the heading: “You can explain evil, but you can never excuse it.”
Masters rightly points out that however much we might learn about specific brain function, it can never remove an individual’s responsibility for his actions. He also comments: “The matter of moral decision-making has perplexed and baffled mankind for thousands of years, and most of the attempts to explain it are circular, searching for a language which might penetrate matters incapable of resolution.”
The Christian explanation for evil is for me the most coherent and reasonable: humans are radically flawed in their nature (“original sin”) and have a lifelong struggle to overcome their sinful instincts while they face a 3-pronged assault from the world, the Devil and the flesh, as the Penny Catechism so succinctly puts it.
Whatever brain trauma you might have suffered or however appalling your upbringing and circumstances, you are still responsible for how you behave.
This is a tough message but also a comforting one. It allows a person a certain dignity: you are not a permanent victim of unhappy experiences or a bundle of uncontrollable impulses, but someone capable of change, betterment – indeed, what Christians call “metanoia” or spiritual transformation.
Although Masters is right to state that “The man who behaves violently does so because he wants to. He has the will to decide and to act upon that decision”, he is wrong when he adds: “To use the word ‘evil’ in this connection is itself an admission of defeat. It is an occult word, incapable of definition in the real world. In effect, it means ‘I don’t know.'”
Actually the word “evil” is perfectly clear and intelligible; there is nothing “occult” about it. I suspect Masters dislikes it because of its religious connotations. It implies a moral choice to do something wicked – the opposite of doing something good. You don’t have to be a neurologist or philosopher to know it when you see it.
I have just been reading the recent biography of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish hero who saved thousands of Jews in Hungary in 1944-45 from repeated attempts by the local Nazis under the orders of Adolf Eichmann to exterminate them. Wallenberg was a good man who chose to try to save the lives of Jews who were being hounded to death. Eichmann was an evil man who chose to hound to death as many Jews as he could.
“The evil that men do lives after them” wrote our greatest writer, Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar. And Milton followed this in Paradise Lost with the chilling words: “Evil be thou my good”.
Sometimes the poets get to the heart of the matter more revealingly and illuminatingly than brain specialists and criminal investigators.