Books Discussed:

The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil by Andrew Delblanco (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 1995)

The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen (Basic Books Perseus Group, New York 2012)

After the mass shooting (according to some estimates the 555th mass shooting of America’s year 2017) at a Baptist Church in Texas, Governor Abbott, when asked what should his citizens be doing now, answered, “Look to the Lord.” The Texas Attorney General had more specific thoughts. Texas gun laws were ambiguous about open and concealed carry in churches. He thought that people should take their guns to church and that Texas law should unambiguously allow them to do so. Asked about what causes such mass gun casualties (remember, this is just four weeks after a gunman killed 59 and wounded about 500 in Las Vegas), the head of Texas Carry thought that riots and disrespect for police was the answer.

All that is stupid nonsense of course. But the problem of evil in the world is not nonsense. Now that we inhabit a full-bore gun culture (no pun intended), we Americans are sunk in perpetual foreign wars, subjected to news of deaths that most cultures would be shocked by, and numbed by constant hate to the point that our President (Trump) says only that “now is not the time” to talk about it. The President does, however, sometimes call mass shooters “degenerate” or “evil”, succumbing to non-reflexive instinct in a search for either natural (“degenerate”) or transcendent (“evil”) explanations. One thing the President cannot do is to look inside himself; nor, it seems, can many of us. But, what is it about the culture surrounding these horrible events that gives rise to mass shootings and gun violence in general?

The two books under consideration here do look inside “us” to examine the culture of evil and cruelty. Andrew Delblanco’s superb book “The Death of Satan” is a highly readable survey, by Columbia University’s Professor of Humanities, of the literary, social and cultural landscape surrounding America’s engagement with the Devil and how American thinkers and writers have come to grips with the ever-present history of war, torture, murder, and other forms of human cruelty. Delblanco’s basic premise is that: “A gulf has opened up in our culture between the visibility of evil and the intellectual resources available for coping with it.” Citing a “crisis of incompetence before evil”, Delblanco traverses the centuries from Puritanism to Science, and finds that the Devil has disappeared and that Americans, “having discarded the old words and symbols” have arrived “at an unprecedented condition of inarticulate dread.”

Those of us interested in the present debate about the Gun Culture (not about guns, but about an entire culture addicted to guns and other violence) can hardly ignore the fact that neither religion nor science can adequately explain what is happening in our churches, schools, nightclubs, workplaces, streets and homes. Delblanco discusses a wide array of writers and thinkers—Emerson, Melville, Cotton Mather, Hemingway, Lincoln, Kierkegaard, Primo Levi, Dewey and Lippman, to name just a few. “Getting a handle” on evil, as Delblanco argues, has been a major theme in American literature and art. These days, Delblanco would say that we as a culture have lost our mutual ability (as a society) to agree on any terms of transcendence for our shared values. Gun advocates argue that we need more guns to combat the guns in the hands of “evil doers”. Some argue that we need regulation. Some might raise their hands in surrender. But make no mistake, Delblanco’s wonderful book is a reminder about how much we’ve lost to violence and evil when a disappeared Devil can compose such a score and have us all dancing to his tune from somewhere off the stage.

While Delblanco’s “Death of Satan” is an invaluable book for those interested in America’s historical thinking about evil (and a book that could stimulate much useful debate), Simon Baron-Cohen’s “The Science of Evil” rejects transcendental or metaphysical speculation in favor of a strictly scientific explanation of evil, or what Baron-Cohen (a Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge) calls “empathy erosion”. “Empathy is not the only component that contributes to cruelty” Baron-Cohen writes, “but…it is the final common pathway.” Empathy erosion is, in scientific terms, the only thing about “evil” that is measurable or observable, and thus the only thing that can be reasonably discussed as a causal factor in any kind of cruel act.

Baron-Cohen describes the considerable research done into the ways and means behind how some people become capable of cruelty and “whether the loss of affective (emotional) empathy “inevitably has this consequence.” Cohen’s book describes the abundant research results from neurobiology and gene dynamics to take a close look at the medical conditions leading to a loss of empathy. At issue is the behavior of psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists, who demonstrate a “Zero-Negative” empathy level, meaning that each of these categories of persons suffer from medical illnesses that disallow them from recognizing the emotions of other people. Along the way, Cohen discusses people diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism, “Zero-Positives” who have a affective connections to other’s emotions, but who cannot cognitively process “other minds”.

Cohen’s book leaves a barren impression, though its science is undoubtedly correct. But as an explanation for “evil in the World”, science falls short, at least emotionally, given that “cruelty” is only one limited kind of evil. Zeroing in on individuals who lack affective empathy (even if this can be observationally and scientifically proven) leaves out of the equation, for example, all those “good Germans” who watched the Jews disappear from their towns and villages, quietly observed them being marched to the trains, and gazed on as their ashes rose up as smoke out of tall chimneys all over Germany and Eastern Europe. Those were the Germans who loved their children, went to church, fed the dog, and listened to Mozart.

These good Germans have a lot in common with we good Americans who all stand up during the national anthem. We’d best start asking each other and ourselves the right questions.