Sunday, May 08, 2011

The Myth of the Evil Genius

Joker by Nebezial
The evil genius only exists in fiction.

An evil genius cannot exist in reality, because in reality, intelligence and evil are incompatible. A genius acts rationally, and history constantly proves that it is rational to be good.

Genius and evil are two terms that are nearly impossible to define, but most people know it when they see it. Adolf Hitler was evil. Osama Bin Laden was probably evil. Albert Einstein was a genius. Bill Gates is probably one too.

It's not that evil doesn't pay; genius and evil both pay, in some sense. Bill and Osama both have mansions, and could probably afford the most expensive bacon at the grocery store (though I guess Osama would pass). The difference is that Bill is living a comfortable life that leaves a trail of advancements and improved lives. Osama is at the bottom of the ocean riddled with bullets, and has left a trail of destruction and ruined lives.

Osama and Adolf did gain power, but was it through genius? I doubt it. They excelled in some areas—charisma, mostly, and probably a good helping of being in the right place at the right time—but I doubt they were geniuses. Not in the sense meant here: extreme mental ability for coming to correct conclusions.

On both an individual and a societal level, it is rational to be good. More often than not, the correct choice between a good option and an evil option is the good option, all things considered. Murdering a person you can't stand may be easier than altering your own life to get away from him (say, packing up and moving away), but on an individual level, murder will probably put you in jail or dead yourself, and on a societal level, allowing people to murder willy-nilly wouldn't be conducive to happiness and productivity.

That's why the evil genius doesn't exist. Even if the impulse to do evil was there, a true genius would take a moment, and think "hmm, considering all the consequences, maybe genocide isn't such a spiffy idea." If The Joker was really so smart, he'd figure out a way to resolve his Batman problem without blowing up innocent people and getting thrown in Arkham again and again.

Evil cannot result from the cool calculated machinations of a genius. In real life, evil is in the hot passion of an argument when a knife is nearby. It's in the subtle biases of a politician whose values are misguided. And in that sense, evil is in all of us; luckily we also have an inner genius to play superhero.

See also: First Person Plural.


c said...

I think there's just a sliding scale of behaviour that we interpret as good or bad, with evil and altruistic maybe at the unobtainable extremes that exist only as end-markers.

All of us slide across our personal scale in reaction to our perception of a situation, and even how that reaction is interpreted by others is entirely subjective, based on their own experiences.

That's how I look at it, so there's really no such thing as true evil to begin with, other than in fiction/religion where the reader is provided the code by the author on how he ought to feel toward the related behaviours.

But intelligence, or a lack of it, isn't subjective, within a reasonable framework anyway. So I don't see how a relationship could be arrived at, between rationality and where one lands on their 'moral' scale.

An emotionally void sociopath can be as intelligent as the warmest hearted altruist. And for that matter, altruism could be considered as irrational as evil if the argument followed through, thereby negated the hypothesis.

To complete the argument that evil and genius are incompatible, that means that good and unintelligent is equally as unlikely.

And I don't think that's the case. Less intelligent people can be as nice as anybody, and likely more so. And the most morally deviant person can be a genius as likely as not, same as the altruist.

I hope this makes some sort of sense as I'm not much of a genius.

c said...

And now you've got me thinking about a bunch of stuff I don't have time to be thinking about today!

1. If someone commits an act so utterly irreprehensible that every person on the planet agrees that is a truly bad thing, is that still a subjective conclusion, or does the math render it an objective fact?

2. Say a baby is born and thrown into a cage, remaining there until adulthood with an *absolute* lack of nurture his whole life.

The cutest, more loving and harmless kitten wanders into the cage one day and befriends him, showering him with this alien feeling of love and affection.

He has no idea what the feeling is and it overwhelms him. Intrigued, he tears the kitten apart to see what's inside, to find the thing that's making him feel so strangely.

The cuddly wee kitten is dead at his hands.

Is he morally responsible? Is he inhuman? Evil?

If not, why do we loathe psychopaths and sociopaths who act as they do, when it's the lack of something within them, through no fault of their own, that caused their behaviour?

And to a lesser degree, which makes it even murkier, where then do we draw the line between how responsible someone is for their actions when everyone of us has had differing degrees of nurture and moral examples?

Probably rambling by now, huh? I'll stop.

Anonymous said...

The child is not evil because it did not know it was doing wrong.The line is drawn with knowledge of wrong doing and the degree of evil is measured by the act done. (wading into waters I have no business being in)

c said...

>wading into waters I have no business being in)

You don't see that stopping ME, do ya?

Phronk said...

Cal: Good points. A few counterpoints:

1) We're in danger of bickering over definitions. Whether evil really exists is a big question that can't be answered here (I've taken a whole course on it before). Maybe, in this post, I could replace "evil" with "what the average person could reasonably refer to as evil (whether it truly exists or not) within a given society or subgroup."

Even if we define it in this more culture-specific, somewhat subjective way, I think the argument holds water. When it comes down to it, doing things in a way that pisses off other people is usually not the best way to go about it.

2) I don't think my argument implies that less intelligent people cannot be good. "All intelligent people are good" does not logically necessitate "all dumb people are bad" (just like "all sweet foods are delicious" doesn't imply "all bitter foods are gross").

In other words, lack of genius is necessary but not sufficient for evil. I agree that non-geniuses can be good. :)

3) The issues of responsibility and knowledge, and even free will, that you bring up are interesting. Again, too big to really dig into here. I do think there are some objective standards to good and bad. You could argue that the cage baby, by unjustifiably doing harm to a conscious being, did something wrong whether he KNEW it was wrong or not. Maybe not "evil" if knowledge of wrongdoing is part of the definition, as ThatGuyinLondon said.

Deep stuff. Thanks for the comments dudes!

Starling Social said...

Interesting post... made me stop and think, and I have to say I agree with you. The term "evil genius" doesn't really apply to anyone we've called 'evil'. At least not that I cal think of.

mel said...

This blog is smart and cool. This particular post really made me happy because it said in a "smarty pants, don't argue with me" way the thing that I always try to articulate but can't, which is that evil is basically a social construct (or at least that is what I read). Anyway, you're a cool dude. And keep it up with the internet dating posts (although if you don't want to be single, internet dating may not be the way out - trust me on this - I got dumped via text message last week). Ok, have a nice day.

Phronk said...

Thanks Alyson. Yeah, there are few examples of people we'd call "evil" to begin with, and I don't think any can be called geniuses.

And someone named Mel left a nice comment which seems to have disappeared. But thanks to you too if you see this. I'm glad you noticed the "don't argue with me" tone; I was trying a new style of not putting so much of myself into the argument. Dunno if I like it, but it was fun to write. :)

c said...

>I'm glad you noticed the "don't argue with me" tone

That's probably why I chose to argue with you. Well, that and because you're wrong :)

Tatiana said...

I'd have to differ too, I think evil and genius go hand in hand much more often than we think, using the prosaic definitions.

Lets take one of the many backroom deals in history where leader of the free country A and leader of the dictatorial country B get together and agree on C, all of which would make them very rich, while the average joe is no wiser. Kind of genius at times, and morally reprehensible.

I think people act as good/bad as they can get away with.

Johnson said...

I'm not going to get into bin Laden since it seems far too early for any real understanding of his actual thought processes, but Adolf Hitler can certainly be called "genius" despite the fact that he is, as I'm sure all would agree, "evil."

Hitler would absolutely fit the definition of genuis as you've written it: extreme mental ability coming to correct conclusions. Hitler's end goal was conquering Europe and ultimately, probably the world. To that end, he certainly made correct decisions.
To be a ruthless, dominant military leader, it arguably wasn't "rational to be good" as you've noted as a sort of universal mark of intelligence.

When your objective is to do evil, and the decisions you are making are perfectly suited to that end, is that not genius?

Hitler liked the consequences of genocide, so it can't be judged a "wrong" decision that he didn't weigh the consequences of his actions.

What you seem to be revealing with these examples isn't a matter of "genius," rather it's actually a matter of sanity. We can't really frame these ultra-bad dudes in the same terms of "intelligent" or "genius" or "stupid." They had wholly different motives than most people - because they were evil.

Cal - I feel like the man in the cage would have probably realized through his own experiences that smashing into the cage was unpleasant. He therefore would have learned about experiencing pain and, I think, would understand that the cat would likewise feel pain. So, if he ripped the cat in half, I'd say, yes, his actions were inherently evil.

Anonymous said...

I disagree. Your basic idea is that it is smart to be altruistic and those who act otherwise will end up losing. How about Stalin? Wasn't he as evil as Hitler? He died quietly in his bed after living out his four score and seven. He ruled over the largest land empire in history and did whatever he wanted. And he was no dummy.

Anonymous said...

You are so so so wrong my friend. Geniuses are those with potenial beyond most people. They can use pure rationale and logic to move society in any direction they choose. They are, however, still human. When a human goes through enough pain and is pushed out of society, hatred can turn that analytical mind against the masses.

Evil and hatred may develop within emotion, but that doesn’t mean they react within it. All humans have a breaking point. A genius that toiled in honorable causes and sacrificed everything for the masses can end up unacknowledged or unappreciated may be vain, but is still a genius. In addition, after 30 years of never being able to connect with a single soul due to the separation of understanding the world in terms the masses do not understand can create severe psychological problems that do not hinder the mind’s sheer analytical and strategic creativity.

Those who have the potential fulfill an objective by any means necessary can use the virtues of patients, strategy and their knowledge of analysis and the predictability of a mind weaker then themselves. These abilities don’t have to vanish when the masses wound one so heavily.

In a world of no deduced purpose, all it takes is a logical argument within a great mind filled with rage that the human race should not exist or bow to themselves as a greater intelligence.

Evil does not pay, btw. That is not evil, that is petty human selfishness and vanity. Every weak mind would jump at the chance to have riches and power. Like the good, which can only be done in its own right, evil too must be done with in it own code of justification.

You think that when a mind of great analysis and creativity deduces that the proper course of action is to remove a worthless species from existence, that he will just, in his rage, pick up a knife and begin stabbing people to see how many people he can get through?

Self-hatred is also a key. You would be surprised of how fast guilt can drive a mind against the good. The genius mind has already endured a life time of being different. Add on top of that, his or her feeling that they have become both a victim and victimizer.

Now add in failure in his obsession to locate the emergent property of self-awareness utilizing a 9 year education in neuroscience and quantum physics. Through in two failed marriages with his inability to connect with other human beings. Add his ability to manipulate the human race with personality mirroring techniques designed upon trial and error.

When that person realizes that facebook and corporate desk jobs are more important to the human race than their own examination of self-awareness to find out who they are truly suppose to be.

Now on the very top, add the only women in existence who had a greater ability to manipulate the world than he. His fascination with her passion to become famous at all costs drives him to help her and leave his work behind.

When she's done, she takes everything from him, including robbing every item he ever had and the courts with no explanation decide there is no justification to give it back to him.

Perhaps he leaves to Vegas to play poker for a living. He makes $300-$500 per day using his genius, but in his fragile state he spends it all on drugs to ease the pain. When he's broke, he returns home to take his own life like she told him he should do.

But, instead of silence, he wakes up in the psyche ward with liver problems from the overdose.

Let me tell you this, when he is ready to interact with that world again, he will not grab the knife. He has years left until the illness takes him.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for your luck, dude. Doesn't need to be that way, though. I actually agree with you that great intelligence can coincide with great "evil", and I'm somewhat unnerved by the stark similarities between my life story and the one in your example - but I'd feel a whole lot better if the guy in your example, instead of feeling as he does, chose to consider the words of E.K├╝bler-Ross:

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

Best of luck.