Ponerology: The Science Of Evil

Militant aggression, conquest and colonialism. Oppression. Genocide. Ecological destruction. Economic depredation. Domestic conflict. Child abuse. Bullying. Waste. Neglect.

These and other related pernicious phenomena have perpetually persisted for millennia, assuming various forms in each generation to thwart anew the dream for a sustainably healthy world.

A diverse range of people, motivated by a combination of principled conscience, curiosity and concern for those that they care about, have taken an interest in, investigated or worked to help resolve these issues.

This range includes experts in a variety of fields who have carried out, to the best of their abilities, scientific studies focused on understanding and discovering solutions to each of these challenges.

Yet, despite the investment of all of this energy by so many, humanity has been unable to reduce their impact significantly enough to achieve the type of lasting peace, harmony and justice that we assume all of us desire.

Why is this?

Perhaps we can gain some insight into the reasons behind this abiding failure by considering the fact that all of these stubbornly enduring phenomena share something in common.

They all involve harmful, destructive behavior that challenges assumptions about the core good of all and, thus, all raise timeless and crucial questions about the force that we call “evil.”

Questions like:

  • What do we mean when we use the word evil?
  • Which entities, actions or phenomena qualify to be described as evil?
  • Are certain environments or settings more or less conducive to the emergence or perpetuation of evil?
  • How do various manifestations of evil interconnect and feed back on each other?
  • To what extent is destructiveness in our world inevitable as opposed to preventable?
  • To what extent is the destructiveness in our world accidental as opposed to consciously and willfully carried out or enabled or unnecessarily tolerated?
  • To what extent are human beings responsible for provoking, carrying out, enabling or unnecessarily tolerating evil?
  • Why do certain people, groups and institutions exhibit a strong predilection for harmful, cruel, destructive or neglectful behavior?
  • Why do some experience apathy or even pleasure upon encountering evil, while others find it disdainful and resist it?
  • How do those who lack conscience influence others close to them?
  • How can we better recognize those who promote or enable evil to take place?
  • To what extent can and should humans work to prevent or resist evil?
  • When indicated, how can we best do this?

Nearly all of the most daunting challenges we face relate in some way to these questions. Therefore, they are among the most important questions of our time.

If we are ever to escape our pattern of futility and make progress in reducing the kinds of important and resistant problems discussed – problems which may, in many cases, represent various symptomatic manifestations of that which we call evil – we simply need to improve our capacity to address these core questions about evil with which they are inextricably intertwined.

Yet, though we regularly apply science in examining the demographic, sociological, psychological and physical causes, characteristics and consequences of these symptomatic problems, we far too often fail to apply it in examining the meaning, sources, enabling factors and dynamics of evil itself or in inquiring into optimal strategic approaches to it.

Instead, many view and engage with the subject from a variety of non-scientific or even anti-scientific perspectives:

Some simply philosophize about evil, treating it as an abstract, rather than practical, matter.

Some principally focus on evil through literature or art in which it is portrayed as a shadowy mystical or, at times, even romantic force.

Some relate to evil primarily emotionally, experiencing or expressing sentiments, in regard to it or its manifestations, ranging from deep sadness to furious rage.

Some mainly relate to evil moralistically, experiencing themselves as proudly superior to “wrong-doers,” stridently demanding righteous behavior from others and even impulsively advocating for aggressive or violent revenge against those who do not comply.

Some say that we can simply never truly understand the origins and nature of evil.

Some, for a variety of reasons, refuse to even discuss the topic.

Even many professionals, when forced to confront and speak about questions of evil raised in the course of their work, limit their role to a descriptive one, while evading any responsibility to more deeply explore its core nature or origins.

And all of these cases can involve a sometimes egotistical refusal to risk the shattering experience that can result from thoroughly considering whether one’s impression of evil may be incorrect or incomplete.

It is understandable that we take some of these approaches to the issue of evil. It may be that we evolved to most naturally consider the issue through these lenses and in these terms and many of our traditions reinforce these ways of viewing it.

Perhaps these ways of thinking will always play at least some role. And in the past, when our knowledge and tools were more limited, we may have had an excuse to only employ these approaches.

But our situation has transformed drastically.

We no longer live in the environment or situation in which such views evolved and to which they are suited. Human systems arrangements have been revolutionized.

Our shift from a relatively small number of people living sporadically in small tribes to a quickly growing mass of billions of people, living extremely hierarchically in mostly highly dense urban settings, has helped to drive scientific progress, enabling the development of more and more potent technologies, which in turn support more and more extensive and interconnected power structures, financial systems and communication networks.

The continuous mutual advancement of these technologies and complexes has, in some respects, improved our lives. But it has also fueled a sort of ever-accelerating “arms race” in which the stakes are continuously raised.

On one hand, the march of civilization has transformed the nature of the dangers we face, creating opportunities for forms and scales of destructiveness not previously seen.

New tools and structures and the connections between them have introduced new vulnerabilities, allowing misguided or malicious people, in smaller and smaller groups or even as lone people, to pose greater and novel types of threats ever more easily and to spread their ill intent faster and farther than ever before.

While evil has, in some form, always had influence within our world, modern ways of life have both amplified and diversified its potential impact.

On the other hand, luckily, the improved science that has emerged from the increased interconnectedness and specialization of human systems has also strengthened our potential for countering these new and magnified threats.

It offers us more relevant objective knowledge than we previously had and far more options and tools for investigation, prevention and protection.

In the face of these enormous, complex developments in our capacities both to foster harm and to promote care, ways of thinking about evil that may have served us in our evolutionary past are not, in and of themselves, serving us very well in this new environment.

For, they, alone, are no longer capable of generating sufficient or optimally workable solutions.

As those with malicious intent increasingly employ the insight and fruits of science to exploit newly created or discovered weak spots in our social and ecological systems, it is more desperately important than ever that we who value health and sustainability keep pace by at least attempting to employ its tools and techniques just as vigorously in defense of ourselves and those we care about.

We should apply the power of that same science that enables technological advancement toward achieving a similar level of advancement in our understanding of why and how destructive evil acts continue to take place.

This includes the pursuit of ethics as a science in order to ensure that, as we consider matters that are responsible for such vast suffering, we are not unnecessarily laboring under flawed conceptions and assumptions and, as a result, responding in ways that are ineffective or that even make situations worse.

Unfortunately, it appears that a gap may be widening as the malicious accelerate their application of science for ill intent faster than those valuing health and sustainability are accelerating its application to addressing the core issue of evil itself.

While we certainly do apply science and our improved knowledge much more frequently in attempting to directly counter specific malicious threats, we are not using it nearly enough in aiming to understand, as objectively as possible, what really underlies malice, destructiveness, wastefulness and neglect, develop the type of terminology necessary to accurately discuss them and determine how best to respond.

It is likely that this gap relates deeply to what Einstein meant when he stated that “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

It is crucial that we close this gap.

In fact, it is so important that we attain greater understanding, promote new ways of communicating and discover more accurate and complete answers in regards to the aforementioned questions about evil that, not only should we apply science to this task, but we need an entire scientific discipline devoted to the task.

A discipline in which professionals with backgrounds in fields ranging from psychology, psychiatry and other areas of medicine to public health, from sociology to history, from biology to law and education contribute to designing and carrying out serious studies utilizing our most powerful tools and techniques to investigate all aspects of that which we consider evil.

Luckily, I found out that just such a discipline already exists.

Several years ago, I was involved in a hurtful situation that, in conjunction with many other hurtful situations I had experienced or observed, spurred me to more fervently seek answers to questions of evil such as those posed earlier.

At the time, I may not have been able to frame those questions so precisely. But, in retrospect, it is clear that those were indeed the types of questions with which I was grappling.

In the course of researching these topics, I happened upon mention of the term ponerology.

What Is Ponerology?

Ponerology is, in short, a scientific discipline devoted to the study of evil. Its name stems from poneros, the Greek word for evil. It aims to apply the methodology and epistemology of science – especially drawing from fields such as biology, medicine and psychology – to:

  • Discover the general laws of the genesis of evil, also known as ponerogenesis, at all levels of human systems – from the family, group and societal levels to the national and global levels
  • Develop the proper categories and working vocabulary to technically name and explain the factors involved in that process
  • Potentially develop ways to slow, prevent or neutralize ponerogenesis

In other words, rather than simply accepting that evil inevitably emerges via supernatural or inexplicable means, ponerology employs the scientific method to persistently ask about and increasingly describe where evil really comes from, the various elements, roles, tactics and contexts involved in the stages of its arising and how we might limit its detrimental impact on our world.

Ponerology has been described as follows:

In the author’s opinion, Ponerology reveals itself to be a new branch of science born out of historical need and the most recent accomplishments of medicine and psychology.

In the light of objective naturalistic language, it studies the causal components and processes of the genesis of evil, regardless of the latter’s social scope.”

A new scientific discipline which would study evil, discovering its factors of genesis, insufficiently understood properties, and weak spots, thereby outlining new possibilities to counteract the origin of human suffering.”

These descriptions come from the work most directly associated with the field of ponerology and most often credited with popularizing the term.

It is a book that I was lucky enough to come across almost immediately after discovering the word ponerology for the first time – one whose preface makes the bold claim that “The book you hold in your hand may be the most important book you will ever read; in fact, it will be” and arguably provides a perspective important enough to back it up.

This is taken from a long document. You can read the rest here.

Author: Systems Thinker


September 30, 2023


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