What drives people to commit evil actions? Is it mental disease, fanaticism-fueled terrorism, rebellion against authority? Is it the outcome of bad parenting, eroding national values, the breakdown of faith and family? Or is it something else altogether?
I think there is a more fascinating question: What drives people to acts of heroism and kindness? What is it in people that drives them to put the interests and sometimes even the lives of others before their own? What force in people allows them to set aside their primal instincts for survival to care more about the safety of others than about self-preservation? If we focused on discovering answers to these questions we might be able to nurture a more caring and less violent society.
Yesterday, in the bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line, we witnessed both sides of human nature. We saw another example of the cruel mass violence that has frequented our news screens for the past several months. On the other hand, we saw countless people act selflessly, kindly and even heroically. Esther Zuckerman writes of these stories in her piece in the Atlantic Wire, &"Stories of Kindness After the Bombing.&" In our anguish we focus on the evil, but if man is truly just a sophisticated animal why should we be so troubled by his violent acts of self indulgence, self promotion or the elimination of competition for his assets or ideas?
If we celebrate everything that is natural, then violence is natural and human violence shouldn&'t surprise us any more than a violent snake, lion or aligator in a game park would. We are seldom taken aback by violent language or abusive behavior, nor by bullying management practices, violent movies or video games. Why then are we so shocked when violence spills over into social action? Shouldn&'t we be more surprised by the inexplicable selflessness of heroes and the kindness of countless people. Shouldn&'t we be more surprised by the person who lets us in ahead of them on the road than by those who cut in front of us?
Ever since Charles Darwin highlighted the contradiction between his theory of natural selection or what Herbet Spencer termed the survival of the fittest and human acts of heroism, social scientists have debated the source of heroism and self-sacrifice.
In Professor Stanley Coren&'s essay, The Evolution of Heroism, he writes:
In 1871 Charles Darwin wrestled with the problem of heroic acts when he said, &"He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature.&"
Our perplexity about the paradox of human cruelty and kindness stems from the way we compartmentalize our understanding of human behavior. Scientists who view us as evolved animals tend to explain our actions from the perspective of our survival instincts. Using this paradigm it is indeed hard to fathom why anyone would put the needs of others before his or her own. Others who view us as spiritual beings created in the image of God see our evil choices as aberrations of our essentially divine natures. However neither view of humankind is adequate to explain our behavioral complexity. We are neither just evolved animals nor are we worldly angels.
We are, in fact, driven by two different but parallel &"operating systems.&" As I explain in Lead By Greatness:
They are our defensive survival instinct and our creative, heroic drive, and we are free to choose by which of the two operating systems we wish to function in any given moment of our lives. This choice mostly driven by our values, is the most significant choice we ever make, because everything else flows from it. Humankind is at once both an instinctual animal and an inspired hero majestically fused into a single, integrated, magnificent being.
When we are insecure and operate from a place of ego or fear we default to our defensive operating system. This is when we shut down our feelings and gear for a flight or fight response to a perceived threat. We either become closed and withdrawn or aggressive and nasty. Later, if we are evolved enough to reflect on our behavior we are likely to experience feelings of remorse about how we acted. Self-mastery occurs when we pause for a moment before we react and we design a response that is more aligned to our values and beliefs. In these cases we generally act in ways we will later be proud of irrespective of what the consequences are.
Every time we do something that gives life to our values even though it is inconvenient or costly to ourselves, we are acting heroically. Each time we stop ourselves from reacting defensively in the moment, we are acting heroically too. If we believe in kindness and generosity, then when we act kindly and generously at our own expense we are employing our heroic operating systems. When we react in anger or we withdraw, we are acting instinctually. Instinct and heroics are equally natural to humans, our choices are not about what&'s natural but about what&'s right.
Ultimately, the ability to self-identify the heroic and persistently infuse it into our daily lives will, if not prevent the next cowardly act of violence, at least mitigate its effects. It is not sufficient to raise and educate our children with good values. We also need to raise them with self-discipline. We need to inspire the people we lead with the will to find security and meaning in a life of higher purpose rather than one centered in their own self-interests. Will this put an end to evil actions? No, but it will limit the part we play in promoting evil.