How do we Define the Science of Evil?

by: Mormon Heretic

February 24, 2014

I wanted to continue my series on a National Geographic documentary, The Science of Evil.  (A few days ago, I discussed serial killer Jeffrey’s Dahmer, and his baptism in jail following his horrific murders.)  In this post, researchers at Harvard and Princeton try to see how the brain processes moral judgment.  But how do we quantitatively define evil?

Joshua Greene, Asst Prof of Psychology, Harvard University, “So a hurricane destroys a village.  It’s a terrible thing.  But we don’t think of a hurricane as evil, right?  Well, why not?  Well, maybe we say, well the hurricane, it’s not even conscious.  Take the case of let’s say a tiger that kills a child in a village.  The tiger may in a certain sense be conscious of what it’s doing.  It has intentions in a certain sense.  It says, ‘I’m gonna go for that child instead of that child because that one looks juicer to me, right?’  But even there, we don’t say that the tiger is evil.  So what do you have to add to something that’s bad in order to make it evil?“

Princeton’s Jonathan Cohen and Harvard’s Joshua Greene believe that evil is a construction of the human, moral mind.  So for an individual to understand it requires a sense of right and wrong.  Where in us does that sense reside?  Greene and Cohen use FMRI imaging to track the mechanics of the brain when it is engages in a moral judgment.

Jonathan Cohen, Princeton University, “As a scientist, it’s hard to know exactly what we mean by good and evil.  But acts that are in our best interest and acts are not always in our best interest can be sort of carried out by the very same person.”

The participants at Princeton’s Neuroscience of Cognitive Control Lab are normal, healthy, everyday volunteers.

[Joshua Green explains experiment to patient]  “So we’re going to go into the scanner room, we’re gonna have you lie down on that table there and we’ll slide you in.  And you’re going to see text.  So the text will be describing a scenario, a situation.  So you’ll read the questions on the screen and respond as I said by pressing the buttons.  So what we’re going to be doing is taking pictures of your brain while you’re making moral decisions.”

FMRI technology can determine which parts of the brain are active during a given task by tracing the flow of oxygenated blood to a specific brain region.  By so doing, Green, Cohen, and their colleagues hope to map the moral geography of the brain.  Does the activity of neurons firing in the brain give rise to good or evil?

Cohen, “The brain ultimately is a mechanism and a mechanism is just that, it’s something that does things and what it does is a matter of the circumstances in which it finds itself and its ability to value the outcomes.  And so just like any technology or any machine, it can be used for good or for bad.”

Cohen, “Neuroscience is the study of the brain and in particular how the brain gives rise to the mind.  That is, how is it that the physical mechanisms of the brain lead us to do the sorts of things that we think of the mind as doing?”

Can we see these physical mechanisms at work?  In the FMRI scanner at Princeton, research subject Tyler faces a rudimentary dilemma designed to show increased activity in parts of the brain associated with emotion.

You are walking along a country road when you hear a plea for help coming from some roadside bushes.  You encounter a woman who is covered with blood.  The woman explains that she was attacked while hiking and asks you to take her to a nearby hospital.  Your initial inclination is to help this woman, who will probably die if she does not get to the hospital soon.  However, if you help this woman, her blood will ruin your designer suit.  Is it appropriate for you to leave this woman by the side of the road?

No, it’s not appropriate.  Tyler’s answer comes quickly and is consistent with a majority of Green and Cohen’s data.

Greene, “Most people say ‘No, that’s not okay.’  Well, my theory developed with John Cohen and other people is that on the one hand, we have an intuitive emotional response that makes us say, ‘No, terrible.  Don’t do that.’  And if you look at the brain data, that is lots of people answering lots of questions like this and averaging it all together, what you see, you see increased activity in parts of the brain that are associated with emotion and what we call social cognition.”

Green and Cohen’s findings suggest that if the woman were a faceless person on the other side of the world, dying in the Congo, for example, Tyler might have felt okay leaving her by the side of the road.  But because she’s right there in front of him, he has an intuitive emotional response that tells him to help her and stops him from committing what many would call evil.  But what happens in the brain when the moral dilemma is not so trivial as the dilemma of the designer suit and the dying stranger?  What happens when an apparently evil act is paradoxically in the best interest of others?

Cohen, “One of the advantages of being able to do brain imaging, is to be able to see which parts of the brain are coming into play at different points in time and under different sorts of, in response to different sorts of decisions.:

At Princeton’s Neuroscience of Cognitive Control Lab, Jonathan Cohen and Joshua Greene are working to isolate the mechanics of moral judgment, our sense of right and wrong, by mapping patterns in neurological processes.

Greene, “Moral decision-making is not really one kind of process.  It’s two rather different processes and sometimes they compete.  “

Research subject Heather faces the second dilemma, one designed to pit opposing forces in her brain against one another.

Enemy soldiers have taken over your village.  They have orders to kill all remaining civilians.  You and some of your towns’ people have sought refuge in a house.  Outside you hear the voices of soldiers who come to search the house for valuables.  Your baby begins to cry loudly.  You cover her mouth to block the sound.  If you remove your hand from her mouth, her crying will summon the attention of the soldiers who will kill you, your child and the others hiding out in the house.  To save yourself and the others, you must smother your child to death.  Is it appropriate for you to smother your child, in order to save yourself and the other towns’ people?

Greene, “Sometimes people say ‘yes’, and sometimes people say ‘no.’

Will Heather kill her baby to save the village?  And exactly what kind of battle is raging in her normal, healthy brain?

Where does our sense of right and wrong come from?  For Cohen and Greene, the answer begins by mapping the mechanisms of moral judgment in our brains.  In the FMRI scanner at Princeton, research subject heather faces a life and death dilemma and must make a decision.

Is it appropriate for you to smother your child, in order to save yourself and the other towns’ people?

Greene, “What we find is that when people say ‘yes,’ well, you see more activity in that dorsal lateral pre-frontal cortex.  In other words, it’s that cognitive control part of the brain that’s overriding the emotional response.  You have an emotional response that says, ‘No, don’t do it.  Terrible, Horrible.’  But then this other response that says, ‘Look, everybody’s gonna die if you don’t do this.  At least you could save yourself and the other people.’  And that quote-unquote ‘rational’ or more ‘calculative,’ or analytical side of your brain steps in, at least for some people.  And when it does step in, you can see the trace of that in the brain.”

In this case, Heather’s answer is ‘No.’ She would not smother her child.  If she is like others, her brain scan exhibits increased activity in the medial pre-frontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex, suggesting that her decision was based on an emotional sense of right and wrong.  The question arises, how does understanding the machinery of moral decision making impact life beyond the hallowed halls of science?PCC

Greene, “What happens if we look at the brain and after a while, it becomes clear that all human behavior is ultimately just a product of neurons firing at each other and ultimately controlling muscles that ultimately constitute our behavior?  Is that good, it that bad if the soul is out of a job?  Well, some people obviously would think that’s terrible that it’s the worst thing we could find out is that we don’t have souls.  But, it could also be a wonderful thing.  The thought is that belief in souls can do a lot of damage.  Perhaps the most extreme example, take the events of 9/11.  The people who carried out those hijackings, they believed that they were, their bodies were going to die.  But they believed that their souls were going to live a very pleasant existence.  Could they have been brought to do that if it weren’t for the belief that they were, that their souls were participating in a higher purpose?”

Greene and Cohen’s work is in its infancy.  But the early results point towards a future in science may confront the notion of evil with reason in a neuroscience lab far from the heated rhetoric of religion and politics.

What do you think of Greene and Cohen’s work?

Do you think Greene and Cohen's work is ethical?

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Does this brain research help us better understand the soul?

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Given the 2nd scenario above, is it appropriate for you to smother your child, in order to save yourself and the other towns’ people?

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16 Responses to How do we Define the Science of Evil?

  1. DB on February 24, 2014 at 6:08 AM

    The third question about whether it is approriate to smother your child is complex. I believe that it is appropriate to take the life of one person in order to save the lives of many more. However, I know I would never be able to do it if I were in that situation. That scenario, of course, could be twisted in a lot of interesting ways. What would you do if: it was not your child and the parent won’t quiet the child? it was not your child and the parents are not present? it’s an adult having a panic attack and not quieting down? it’s somebody’s pet dog?

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  2. Nate on February 24, 2014 at 7:20 AM

    First of all, the question of smothering one’s child has nothing to do with the soul or our spiritual nature.

    A mother doesn’t refuse to smoother her child because she is “good and moral.” She doesn’t do it because her biological instincts instruct her to be self-sacracifial for her child. What she is feeling is not “morality” but something extremely carnal, the life blood of her DNA crying out for her flesh as manifest in her child.

    If there is anything extra-biological going on, it is the ability humans have to be extra clever, overriding natural instinct for a higher purpose.

    “The soul” is found in Abraham sacrificing Isaac, not Abraham saving Isaac.

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  3. Mormon Heretic on February 24, 2014 at 8:59 AM

    Nate, I completely disagree regarding Abraham. I’ve written a post about it:

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  4. Nate on February 24, 2014 at 1:53 PM

    MH, I’m with you on not taking the sacrifice of Isaac completely literally, but it still illustrates the concept I’m trying to make.

    A lot of what we call “morality” or righteous desires, are actually natural desires of the flesh. The abhorence of killing is not morality, it is biology. It is the natural man. There is a part of the male homo-sapian which enjoys killing on an instinctual level, but certainly not killing his own family. Only killing enemies in battle.

    Our abhorence of Abraham’s sacrifice is the natural man, which is an enemy to God. It is the natural man which tells us not to kill our own family. Of course God says that too, but really, it’s a no brainer. It’s a place where God’s laws and the laws of nature are in perfect harmony. As Jesus said, “If you give gifts to your friends (or family), what profit is it? So do the wicked.” Nobody kills their own family (except psychos and evil people.)

    But God is there to set us at war with our natural man, and sometimes this means at war with our family. “I come not with peace but a sword, to set father against son and son against father, and daughter against mother.” The sacrifice of Isaac is an example, if not literal, then symbolic, of the idea that God asks us to go against the natural man, to abandon our flesh, and the flesh of our family, for the Spirit.

    The people running these experiments don’t seem to understand that. The very proof of the soul is found in the 9/11 attackers. They do something extremely unnatural (suicide and mass murder is very unnatural, and Mother Nature abhors it.) It cannot be explained by biology. These men were extremely normal. They were not psychos. They were just like us, or just like the Mormons who engage in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Normal people responding to the power of religion, the power of real good and evil, real forbidden fruit.

    But the 9/11 hijackers and martyrs like Jesus and Joseph Smith are proving the reality of the soul, the reality of good and evil, which are two sides of the same coin. None of these people were behaving instinctually. They were behaving religiously.

    Chasing “morality” is a fruitless quest, because most of morality is, is instinctual abhorence or desire for certain built-in actions. Repulsion is not proof of the soul. Repulsion is extremely physical. But to transcend repulsion is something interesting.

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  5. mh on February 24, 2014 at 3:07 PM

    Nate, at the time of Abraham, human sacrifice was extremely common. The miracle of the story is that Abraham broke custom and didn’t sacrifice his son. I think the story could be quite literal, and I don’t view it as symbolic.

    But Abraham is off topic. My real question regards the soul. Is the soul just a bunch of neurons firing? Do we make decisions more on what parts of the brain (emotional vs rational) rule our thoughts more than some sort of spiritual prompting? That’s what the researchers are arguing.

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  6. Ken on February 24, 2014 at 4:44 PM


    This is secularism at it’s best, or worst depending on your view. If what Jeffery Dahmer did doesn’t meet the definition of Evil, what does?The problem with seriously entertaining this nonsense is that it provides a rationalization for every act – “if he just had issues because his brain wasn’t functioning properly, them maybe me ______ isn’t so bad”.  We need to quit looking for excuses and rationalizations. We need to study people who have lived exemplary lives  as a means of inspiration instead of the lowest common dominator of society.

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  7. kd on February 24, 2014 at 5:16 PM

    Even if the soul were nothing more than neurons this study as it is represented completely ignores the ability of a person to rationally come up with a moral system that is logically sound. It also ignores the possibility that emotions can originate outside one’s brain, in that they, like rational concepts, can be socialized by culture. All this study shows, and not very well for that matter, where decision making happens some people. Even without the red-herring of 9/11, Greene makes a poor argument supporting the importance of his research

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  8. Mormon Heretic on February 24, 2014 at 6:01 PM

    neK, I think you’ll find next week’s post interesting. Basically it says that all of us can be either good or evil based on circumstances we find ourselves in.

    kd, how would you design a study to find “the ability of a person to rationally come up with a moral system that is logically sound”? Furthermore, how do you design a study that “emotions can originate outside one’s brain?” Once again, next week’s post will discuss how emotions “can be socialized by culture”, so I hope you’ll find that experiment interesting.

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  9. Mormon Heretic on February 24, 2014 at 6:28 PM

    Ken, “If what Jeffery Dahmer did doesn’t meet the definition of Evil, what does?” The real question here is not necessarily what the definition of evil is, but how can we identify that in the brain? How do we define evil brain activity? Prior to this experience, you could look at Dahmer’s brain, and have no idea what in his brain was causing him to do evil. Perhaps now we can see that his emotional brain is more active than rational brain (or maybe vice-versa.)

    I teach a statistics class, and we spend a lot of time talking about measurement devices. If you want to show someone improves, how is that done? Do you use a scale (like for weight), or a test (for intelligence)? How do we show evil brain activity? It isn’t at all easy to quantify. So are you saying that the brain activity FMRI machines are completely worthless?

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  10. kd on February 24, 2014 at 8:17 PM


    I don’t believe that’s something you can “design a study” for. A ‘scientific’ social study is perpetuating the idea that all that is discoverable is empirical and all that matters is scientific. A scientific study can tell you how people think, how neurons work, but it can’t tell you why they think what they are thinking and if its true.

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  11. Ken on February 24, 2014 at 9:24 PM


    The relevant question is: has his brain always been distorted or did his poor choices destroy his brain? Drugs clearly damage the brain and there are studies that suggest violence, violent video games and pornography do the same. I’m suggesting his evil acts caused the brain distortions. This is what they should be studying.

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  12. mh on February 24, 2014 at 9:51 PM

    It should come as no surprise that brain science is in its infancy. Perhaps these are crude experiments, but I don’t think they are irrelevant. I think what they have proposed so far is very interesting and ingenious. The fact that they have identified emotional and rational decision making is pretty darn impressive, imo. I haven’t heard anyone make a compelling argument against their work.

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  13. Douglas on February 25, 2014 at 2:21 PM

    M*A*S*H fan(actics) probably remember what, in the ending finale two-hour episode, what drives Hawkeye over the edge. He’s with a busload of local civillians which has blundered into enemy territory. Hawkeye, attempting to recall the episode with Dr. Freeman, at first expresses frustration that this woman isn’t silencing a noisy chicken (so the NKPA soldiers don’t hear them). The awfulness of the situation hits him with full force when he recalls that instead of a chicken, it was her own baby that she muffled, to the point that it suffocated.

    There was once this video regarding the Atonement about a young fellow who is in charge of a railroad bridge. As the 5:15 ‘Superchief’ announces itself, he’s horrified to see his cute toddler son running across the rail bridge, excited to see Daddy. Knowing that to abandon his post and rescue his son would doom the train’s passengers and crew, he makes an agonizing decision to stay there and let the train wipe out his son.

    “For God so loved the world, that He gave his only Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” In light of said hypothetical and then the REAL sacrifices, hard to imagine the magnitude of that love.

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  14. kd on February 25, 2014 at 6:20 PM


    Its not that brain science isn’t interesting or relevant, its that it is limited. Science can only tell us about the physical world and runs into problems when it tries to address the immaterial. Roger Scruton, a British philosopher, gave an analogy that illustrates the problem of reaching too far. Consider a painting. Science can tell you what the picture is made out of, the shade of the paint. It can even tell you about the shapes of the figures on the painting and perhaps even the emotional response a person has when they see it. But it can’t tell you if that painting is beautiful and why that it so. The why is above the jurisdiction of science. This is the role of philosophy, religion, and aesthetics. They tell us why things are important, why we should care. Even Greene’s extrapolation about the consequences of thinking there is no soul is philosophic, not scientific. The language needed to explain why that research is important enters a realm science doesn’t touch. That doesn’t make science less crucial, that is its inherent nature.

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  15. allquieton on February 25, 2014 at 7:00 PM

    I think it is wrong to smother the baby in this case. It’s never okay to kill someone b/c you are afraid of what will happen in the future (which does not yet exist). And even if fear were removed from the equation, and it was purely a logical choice to end up with more human lives, it’s still wrong. B/c killing is a severe and final decision. And there is no way for anyone to judge the worth or potential of anyone else’s very life.

    Also, it’s important to remember that you cannot know that the soldiers will kill everyone if the baby cries. Also you cannot know that smothering the baby will save everyone.

    Also, if you have any doubt at all that it’s wrong you ought not to do it. B/c you may sin greatly. But by not smothering the baby, you cannot sin.

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  16. brjones on February 26, 2014 at 12:23 PM

    Ken, the problem with your viewpoint is that what constitutes an “exemplary life” is entirely subjective. There are far more people who think Mohammed Atta lived an exemplary life than those who think Joseph Smith did. The only real, measurable difference being, in most cases, where the person judging such things was born. Morality is completely subjective, and changes from book to book, region to region. ‘Evil’ is not any more eternal or objectively definable than other invented societal ideas such as ‘freedom’. It only exists in the form and to the extent that a person defines it and believes in it, and even then, it only applies to that person. Believing really strongly in something doesn’t make it so.

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