In part one of this answer, I wrote about evil that befalls people, and this half of my answer will focus on the evil committed by people. When I talk about evil actions here, I’m going to leave aside incidental evil – evil that is not deliberately willed, but which is the result of a lack of knowledge or a failure to do due diligence and think about the consequences of and motives for your actions. I do believe that carelessness can be a kind of evil, and that moral goodness requires us to break these habits, but that will not be my focus.
I want to focus on evil actions that are deliberately willed. I don’t think all evil actions are willed by people who recognize and/or revel in their behavior as evil. That is the mindset of psychopaths. Most evil actions are taken by people who can recognize the harm they are doing to others and then ignore it. We put our behavior out of mind entirely or imagine some higher need that excuses our behavior and dampen any twinges of conscience.
To behave immorally, even in small matters, requires us to practice ignoring the pain of others and the moral sensibilities that are stirred by that pain. Every immoral act is at least a temporary numbing of your conscience, or, in Harry Potter terms, the wounding of your soul.
So, as long as there are opportunities for small lapses, it is unsurprising that some people will hurt themselves too deeply and become desensitized to larger and larger sins. We take this phenomenon for granted in some cases (this is the deep horror motivating the ban on child soldiers). We debate policies meant to address the consequences of desensitization (I’ve written about PTSD and sin for soldiers (twice)). These examples are extreme, but the basic mechanism is present in most of our lives.
None of us are capable of processing and responding to the pain and need of everyone we will encounter. (I fall particularly short of my duty when I interact with homeless people in New Haven.) Since most of us cannot recognize the reality of the all the suffering in our own cities, let alone the world without being overcome by despair, we learn to tune it out as a coping mechanism. But, no matter how necessary this adaptation is, we cannot ignore its consequences. Practicing distance, ignorance, or coldness will take a toll. We are constantly giving ourselves training in callousness. It’s not surprising that the habit stays with us.
Sometimes, it’s confusing when I co-opt the language of Christianity and talk about humanity as Fallen, especially since I don’t believe there ever was an Edenic period when humans were not subject to these failings. It might suffice to say that I believe humans are insufficient. We are not up to the task before us.
This post has been crosslinked to my Sin and Immorality series. I’ll be developing this idea further for that series, focusing on the most productive ways I’ve found to try to act morally without being overwhelmed by my own insufficiencies, and the part of Christianity theology I most wish were true.