Is evil innate or created?

Yusra Aroob - Jan. 14, 2023 - 5 min read - #Philosophy

Is evil innate or created?

Over many years the definition of evil has changed. First it was understood as a someone/something that was simply bad, but the definition has morphed into the idea of someone/something being profoundly immoral and wicked.

Evil has been defined by philosophers as: natural evils, (which are bad states of affairs that do not result from the intentions or negligence of moral agents). Hurricanes and toothaches are examples of natural evils. By contrast, moral evils do result from the intentions or negligence of moral agents. Murder and lying are examples of moral evils.

The evil actions of people are never thought as evil to the perpetrator. Some of the worst atrocities known to man have been motivated by Utopian ideals, especially coupled with irrational conspiratorial belief and dehumanisation.


But are people born evil or made?

We have long been aware that environmental factors have been known to increase criminality, George Kelling has become known for the ‘Broken windows theory’. In essence, the theory states that a person who witnesses another acting poorly is more inclined to act poorly. This theory was tested for its validity in the Netherlands and the results were remarkable - if people saw graffiti, littering doubled. If people saw road signs being ignored, three times as many ignored other signs. If fireworks were set off illegally, this caused more people to litter. This experiment supports the idea that people are influenced by their surroundings, it elicits the idea that there are environmental factors at play when crimes are committed. 

Though environmental factors contribute to a person and how they commit a crime, you must also understand that it is not just these factors alone. 

Some people are born to kill.

Scientists were eager to determine a genetic basis for criminality and the results they obtained were remarkable: Monoamine Oxidase A (MAOA) which keeps us happy, causes a problem when there is a low quantity of it. When there is a low quantity of MAOA, there is a rise in chemical compounds that trigger aggressive behaviour. Moreover, this also affects the way our body reacts to social stimuli leading to dire results. The low levels of MAOA are a result of natural and environmental factors.

This was the case of Bradley Waldroup, Tennessee. Waldroup got into a fight with his wife and her friend Penny, and whilst intoxicated, he shot Penny 8 times and slashed her head open with a sharp object. He then continued to chop his wife’s fingers off with a machete and cutting her over and over.

His defence lawyer argued in court that variation in his genes, as well as trauma from his childhood, created the vulnerability that he would become a violent adult.  His lawyers argued:

"A person doesn't choose to have this particular gene or this particular genetic makeup. A person doesn't choose to be abused as a child. So, I think that should be taken into consideration when we're talking about criminal responsibility."

The idea that the variation in his genes must also be supported with how he was affected with challenging life circumstances, otherwise the argument would not have been valid.

The prosecutors then argued that it was too early in its scientific development for genetics to be used as a defence.

Waldroup ended up getting 32 years in prison rather than the death penalty or life imprisonment.

This also links into the philosophical argument of determinism which argues that all actions are predestined and no action is free. There can be no control over how you act or react. It also begs the question of whether justice can be served if no action is truly their own. 

Though brief the arguments I have put forth, as well as the evidence in favour of people being made evil, I ultimately believe it outweighs the idea that evil is innate, as to become evil with the variation in your genes you must also be affected by life circumstance, which are environmental forces. I believe that people are evil because of how life has dealt their cards as well as forces brought through early childhood because that impression on a young child stays for life.