Tuesday, 28 August 2012

It's Human Nature to examine the Nature of Humans

In this Sunday's Observer, Barbara Ellen suggests that a better way to react to the sentence handed down to the far right terrorist, Anders Breivik, is to invoke an embargo on stories about him.  She says in her article,

The victims’ families are one thing, but what information do the rest of us truly need about a mass murderer apart from “he’s still locked up”?...I’d prefer to think of him fading into the obscurity he deserves, left to the prison staff and shrinks to sort out.

I disagree with Ms. Ellen.  Certainly there are many who are strangely excited by atrocities and other violent acts.  The whole world of homi-entertainment is disturbing and a huge area to be studied in more depth, but there are also important ethical and philosophical questions that people who behave like Breivik force us to ask ourselves.  These questions cannot just be left to the psychologists and cbt.  Human nature will never be fully explained by genetics, endowments, physiology, upbringing, conditions and evolution.   All these contribute to our understanding, but even when taken together, they’re incomplete.

Despite coldly assassinating 77 people, Anders Breivik was judged to be sane by the Norwegian court which sentenced him to 21 years in prison.  How could a sane person carefully plan and carry out such a series of atrocities?  The reason you find uttered by many, even secular humanists and atheists, is that the perpetrator of such crimes is evil.  Instead of burying this story along with the others similarly unbearable, we need a deeper discussion about what evil is, where it comes from and what it means to be human.  And it’s philosophers, theologians and fictional authors who get to the heart of the nature of evil, where it truly resides and what can be done about it.

William Golding was passionate about the ways in which evil play out in our world; Lord of the Flies and Pincher Martin speak more about human nature than the findings of brain scans.  Terry Eagleton, the Marxist intellectual, describes the condition of evil rather than a list of causes.  In his book On Evil he says:

It is supremely pointless.  Anything as humdrum as a purpose would tarnish its lethal purity…Evil aspires to God’s creativity but reverses it, turning the gift of being into non-being through various techniques of annihilation.  Evil, however, can only annul what has already been brought into being and cancelling what is created only intensifies our sense of the sheer goodness of being.  This drives its agents mad, and their destructiveness, where circumstances permit, reaches unimaginable pitches of frenzy if they don’t consume themselves first.

If Breivik is sane, can a secular psychological approach transform his nature?  Without spiritual redemption, is there any hope for change, for him or any of us?

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