Are Your Enemies Innately Evil?

Followup to:  Correspondence Bias

As previously discussed, we see far too direct a correspondence between others' actions and their inherent dispositions.  We see unusual dispositions that exactly match the unusual behavior, rather than asking after real situations or imagined situations that could explain the behavior.  We hypothesize mutants.

When someone actually offends us—commits an action of which we (rightly or wrongly) disapprove—then, I observe, the correspondence bias redoubles.  There seems to be a very strong tendency to blame evil deeds on the Enemy's mutant, evil disposition.  Not as a moral point, but as a strict question of prior probability, we should ask what the Enemy might believe about their situation which would reduce the seeming bizarrity of their behavior.  This would allow us to hypothesize a less exceptional disposition, and thereby shoulder a lesser burden of improbability.

On September 11th, 2001, nineteen Muslim males hijacked four jet airliners in a deliberately suicidal effort to hurt the United States of America.  Now why do you suppose they might have done that?  Because they saw the USA as a beacon of freedom to the world, but were born with a mutant disposition that made them hate freedom?

Realistically, most people don't construct their life stories with themselves as the villains.  Everyone is the hero of their own story.  The Enemy's story, as seen by the Enemy, is not going to make the Enemy look bad.  If you try to construe motivations that would make the Enemy look bad, you'll end up flat wrong about what actually goes on in the Enemy's mind.

But politics is the mind-killer.  Debate is war; arguments are soldiers.  Once you know which side you're on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the opposing side; otherwise it's like stabbing your soldiers in the back.

If the Enemy did have an evil disposition, that would be an argument in favor of your side.  And any argument that favors your side must be supported, no matter how silly—otherwise you're letting up the pressure somewhere on the battlefront.  Everyone strives to outshine their neighbor in patriotic denunciation, and no one dares to contradict.  Soon the Enemy has horns, bat wings, flaming breath, and fangs that drip corrosive venom.  If you deny any aspect of this on merely factual grounds, you are arguing the Enemy's side; you are a traitor.  Very few people will understand that you aren't defending the Enemy, just defending the truth.

If it took a mutant to do monstrous things, the history of the human species would look very different.  Mutants would be rare.

Or maybe the fear is that understanding will lead to forgiveness.  It's easier to shoot down evil mutants.  It is a more inspiring battle cry to scream, "Die, vicious scum!" instead of "Die, people who could have been just like me but grew up in a different environment!"  You might feel guilty killing people who weren't pure darkness.

This looks to me like the deep-seated yearning for a one-sided policy debate in which the best policy has no drawbacks.  If an army is crossing the border or a lunatic is coming at you with a knife, the policy alternatives are (a) defend yourself (b) lie down and die.  If you defend yourself, you may have to kill.  If you kill someone who could, in another world, have been your friend, that is a tragedy.  And it is a tragedy.  The other option, lying down and dying, is also a tragedy.  Why must there be a non-tragic option?  Who says that the best policy available must have no downside?  If someone has to die, it may as well be the initiator of force, to discourage future violence and thereby minimize the total sum of death.

If the Enemy has an average disposition, and is acting from beliefs about their situation that would make violence a typically human response, then that doesn't mean their beliefs are factually accurate.  It doesn't mean they're justified.  It means you'll have to shoot down someone who is the hero of their own story, and in their novel the protagonist will die on page 80.  That is a tragedy, but it is better than the alternative tragedy.  It is the choice that every police officer makes, every day, to keep our neat little worlds from dissolving into chaos.

When you accurately estimate the Enemy's psychology—when you know what is really in the Enemy's mind—that knowledge won't feel like landing a delicious punch on the opposing side.  It won't give you a warm feeling of righteous indignation.  It won't make you feel good about yourself.  If your estimate makes you feel unbearably sad, you may be seeing the world as it really is.  More rarely, an accurate estimate may send shivers of serious horror down your spine, as when dealing with true psychopaths, or neurologically intact people with beliefs that have utterly destroyed their sanity (Scientologists or Jesus Camp).

So let's come right out and say it—the 9/11 hijackers weren't evil mutants.  They did not hate freedom.  They, too, were the heroes of their own stories, and they died for what they believed was right—truth, justice, and the Islamic way.  If the hijackers saw themselves that way, it doesn't mean their beliefs were true.  If the hijackers saw themselves that way, it doesn't mean that we have to agree that what they did was justified.  If the hijackers saw themselves that way, it doesn't mean that the passengers of United Flight 93 should have stood aside and let it happen.  It does mean that in another world, if they had been raised in a different environment, those hijackers might have been police officers.  And that is indeed a tragedy.  Welcome to Earth.


Part of the Politics Is the Mind-Killer subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

Next post: "The Robbers Cave Experiment"

Previous post: "Correspondence Bias"

Moderation Guidelines: Reign of Terror - I delete anything I judge to be annoying or counterproductiveexpand_more

Another problem with seeing enemies as innately evil is that it lets us off the hook as to our own capacity for evil (so elegantly demonstrated by the Milgram experiments, although I hope I would do better).

I've lost count of how many times I've heard that Hitler or Stalin or whoever was "just evil," or that the holocaust was the result of some essentially German negative personality trait, or that child abusers of various kinds are "just monsters."

To the extent that these statements mean only "Boo Stalin!" or "Boo paedophiles!" I guess they're not so bad, but I think people actually believe them as propositions to some extent. Certainly, if movies are any guide, the bad guys are usually pure evil - for no readily apparent reason, they just love pain and want to blow up the world.

Which is a big problem, because it leads you to be naive about your own propensity. An acquaintance of mine knew a rapist, through work. This rapist was not a slavering beast, he was an ordinary guy (maybe with some nasty explicit or implicit beliefs about women) until he got drunk and raped somebody. I really don't want to say "it could have been me," and I honestly don't think it could have. But I doubt he thought, say a year before, that it could have been him.

More likely is that your inaccurate map of the territory of his mind was sufficiently wrong that it fell under the "normal person" category. As someone who has fantasies about that sort of thing (but would hopefully never actually do it), let me tell you that this isn't the sort of thing that comes out of nowhere. Odds are, he knew where his proclivities lay, and simply decided not to actualise his fantasies until alcohol reduced his inhibitions sufficiently that he decided to go through with them.

This interview with notorious lawyer Jacques Verges in Spiegel deals with the question of evil in a very thought provoking way.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Verges, are you attracted to evil?

Jacques Verges: Nature is wild, unpredictable and senselessly gruesome. What distinguishes human beings from animals is the ability to speak on behalf of evil. Crime is a symbol of our freedom.

SPIEGEL: That's a cynical worldview.

Verges: A realistic one.

SPIEGEL: You have defended some of the worst mass murderers in recent history, and you have been called the "devil's advocate." Why do you feel so drawn to clients like Carlos and Klaus Barbie?

Verges: I believe that everyone, no matter what he may have done, has the right to a fair trial. The public is always quick to assign the label of "monster." But monsters do not exist, just as there is no such thing as absolute evil. My clients are human beings, people with two eyes, two hands, a gender and emotions. That's what makes them so sinister.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean?

Verges: What was so shocking about Hitler the "monster" was that he loved his dog so much and kissed the hands of his secretaries -- as we know from the literature of the Third Reich and the film "Der Untergang" ("Downfall"). The interesting thing about my clients is discovering what brings them to do these horrific things. My ambition is to illuminate the path that led them to commit these acts. A good trial is like a Shakespeare play, a work of art.

Eliezer, terrorists may not be evil mutants, but I'm pretty sure they do hate freedom. Islam translates to "submission to God", and if you look at the history of radical Islam, you'll see that their main opposition has been to freedom and liberalism all along. It all got started with a Muslim university student in the fifties who got disgusted with American immorality, and decided that Islam needed to stand against it, so he tried to overthrow the Egyptian government and establish an Islamic state. It failed, and he and his followers came to believe that it failed because Islam was being corrupted by Western freedoms and immorality.

They might not be evil, but their value structure is incompatible with ours.

I'm pretty sure they do hate freedom

Here's something that Muslim university student wrote:

When, in a society, the sovereignty belongs to God alone, expressed in its obedience to the Divine Law, only then is every person in that society free from servitude to others, and only then does he taste true freedom. This alone is 'human civilization', as the basis of a human civilization is the complete and true freedom of every person and the full dignity of every individual of the society. On the other hand, in a society in which some people are lords who legislate and some others are slaves who obey them, then there is no freedom in the real sense, nor dignity for each and every individual.

Qutb hates "liberal" freedom, but he considers it internal slavery to animal desires, and it correlates with external slavery to a human hierarchy. Whereas knowledge of Islam humanizes you, and a shared knowledge of Islam allows people to live without dictators, because order comes from an impersonal source - shariah law - rather than the whim of a governing class.

Qutb definitely values a form of freedom, but says it can't exist unless you have Islam first.

Yup. Thank you for finding that quote; it pretty much proves my point. He hates the Western version of freedom, and wants to destroy it to replace it with the iron boot on Islamic rule (and seems to have missed that in order to implement sharia law, there have to be people doing the implementation).

The person who originally claimed that "they hate us for our freedom" was probably referring to a Western, enlightenment notion, called by that name.

The thing that the Muslim university student praises and calls freedom is apparently an Islamic religious idea, corresponding very roughly to the sort of freedom a recovering addict craves from his addictions.

If the words were tabooed, then you would probably see the coherence of both points of view, and I think, could fairly assert that Islamists really do "hate our freedoms" in a sense, so long as you don't allow this approximation to carry more than its fair burden of explanatory weight (as certain former POTUSs have done).

Sayyid Qutb is more than a random Muslim university student. He's a central thinker. He was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood when he wrote Milestones (the work you are citing).

I just want to point out that that concept sounds almost exactly like something John Winthrop (the first governor of the Massachusetts colony) said, although I'm not sure if it was his Model of Christian Charity or a different speech (I have it in a book but it's not with me at present).

Although it's actually your interpretation that's almost exactly the same, not so much the original quote. Basically that being free from God's will doesn't make you free, it makes you a slave to your animal desires, and you can only be free by being subservient to God. Rather interesting that the ideas aren't that different. Although it might be that it's not so much a common point of Abrahamic religion, but rather an independent response that very religious people develop in response to ideas of freedom. Also generally interesting to remember how incredibly different Western culture- not German culture or whatever, but English culture- were just a few centuries ago, compared to the way they are now.

Anyway, mostly just found that interesting. Slightly relevant to point out that calling it "the Western version of freedom" isn't quite accurate, as said version goes back less than three centuries. I could furthermore point to all the people who cite Winthrop or the Puritans are America's founders (ex. politicians who use the phrase "City on a Hill"), but that wouldn't really be accurate; they don't really agree with any of their ideals and cite them because they honestly don't know how alien their ideals were to us.

When you put it like that, it actually sounds a lot like the Kantian notion of heteronomy versus autonomy.

I agree with most of the points in this article, but yet it underestimates a fundamental difference between two ways of disagreeing.

Take the typical political debate about "raising taxes on the wealthy to give social help to the poor" vs "giving tax cuts and reducing social help". People can disagree on that topic for two completely different set of reasons.

People can disagree on that topic because, even if they share a more-or-less common utility function, in which having people dying of cold in the street is valued very negatively, they have different expectations about what each policy will do. Some will say that raising taxes on the wealthy and giving the money to the poor will improve the living conditions of the poor, without hurting much the wealthy, and will be good for the economy since it'll increase the demand in construction/good factory/... which is the true motor of economy. Some will say that raising the taxes on the wealthy and giving the money to the poor will lower the incentive for the rich to invest in the economy, and for the poor to find themselves a job, and will at the end damage the whole economy and makes everyone poorer on the long run. I've my own opinion on that (and I may very well be reflected by the way I formulated the two hypothesis, but that's really not my goal here, so please accept my apologizes if it's too obvious). That disagreement is not easy to settle (or it would have been settled since long), but can be argued rationally, looking at history, at different countries, making prediction on what will happen when a country changes it's welfare/tax policy and checking the prediction later on, ... Labeling "evil" someone who share a similar utility function but disagree on the ways to maximize it is indeed a catastrophic mistake.

But people can also disagree on that topic because they have different utility functions. Some do think that homeless are people who deserve to be homeless because they were too lazy and stupid, and give a positive value to the fact that lazy/stupid people are punished. Some others do not include any significant term in their utility function for the homeless, considering they are only a tiny part of the population and not worth considering. Some others do think that having rich people is in itself unfair, and that taxing them highly, even if it doesn't reduce poverty, increases fairness and is therefore valued positively. Disagreements between people having different utility functions like that will be much, much harder to settle. And labeling "evil" someone who has a broadly different utility function than yourself is much more understandable. If we don't for that, well, for what is the word "evil" ?

And it gets even more complicated, because you can have people who claim they share your utility function, while in fact they don't. And you don't always even know for sure if they are or not. And because it's often a bit of both - people who favor high taxes/social help and those who favor tax cuts/no social help usually have both different pondering in their utility function and different expected outcomes for the two policies.

You pose a number of excellent questions in your comment that one might ask about a political opponent. So then the next step is: how does one go about answering those questions? How do you figure out whether one's opponent has different terminal values, or different instrumental values, or both?

That's a very difficult question.

One part of the answer lies into understanding the nature of the debate. Basically, I consider there are two kinds of debates :

  1. A debate between two people, who trust each other (at least to a point, like friends or family members) and without witness. In that case, the whole point of the debate is trying to discover the truth, hoping at the end the two will agree (one conceding he was wrong, finding a common ground in the middle, or finding a third option unthought at the beginning), and it's quite easy to ask the other about his real goal (immediate or distance) and to assume he'll be honest about it.

  2. A debate between two people, but who perfectly know they won't convince each other, but they try to convince witness of the debate. That's a typical debate between political candidates in an election. In that kind of debate, you've to be very doubtful about the claimed values (terminal or instrumental) of everyone involved. That kind of debate is very hard to handle in a non-mindkilling way.

Most real life debates are somewhere in between those two archetypes.

So I make that double distinction : between disagreement in expectation and disagreement in utility function, and between debating in order to get closer to the truth, and debating in order to convince third parties. I don't have a magical solution to find out for sure in which case we are, but I'll be glad to hear some tips/hindsight on the topic.

Another way to state it : to me a political debate in front of witnesses is very like a kind of prisoner dilemma. You can cooperate, by being true on your terminal and instrumental values, being honest, pointing to the flaws of your own side when you see them, ... Or you can defect, by hiding your true values, hiding facts, avoiding your weak points, and even lying on facts.

If both cooperate, the debate will go smoothly, and is likely to end up in everyone being closer to the truth than when you started. If both defect, the debate will get dirty, the two debaters will end up more convinced of their own view than initially, but the witnesses will still, on average, be closer to the truth, because I do believe that it's easier to defend something "true" than something "false". But if one cooperates and the other defects, then the one who defects is very likely to convince the witnesses, regardless of him being right or wrong.

So for myself I tend to use a "tit-for-tat with initial cooperation and forgiving", like I do on anything that I identify as an iterated prisoner dilemma : I cooperate initially, if I get the feeling the other is defecting, I'll resort to defecting (but I'll never go as far as openly lying, that's against my ethical code of conduct), but still try to fallback to cooperate every now and then and see if the other cooperates then or not.

I think that debates of the first type are probably even rarer than you estimate; even when two people who trust each other, and who both have a deliberate intent to seek the truth, are arguing alone, political instincts and biases kick in pretty hard.

I do really like your overall strategy; I'll try to remind myself more often in the future to occasionally turn down my politics-face a bit to see if the other is willing to return to a more cooperative state.

I will just pop in here to say that I used to be this huge snob who would look down at people my age who said that Ender's Game is one of their favorite books. I was like "Clearly, they have not read any fancy literature since middle school. Silly noobs!"

And then I read the book again and I realized that actually that book is super-important because it basically captures the contents of this article in a book for children when most books for children are all about taking out the evil bad guy and sorta imply that violence is no big deal.

The Jesus Camp link is broken. Does anyone have an alternative? I don't know what Eliezer is referencing there.

Jesus Camp is a documentary about a camp for fundamentalist Christian youths. The first part can be seen here (check the related videos for the subsequent parts). Alternately, if you don't have time to watch the full movie, this should give you a general idea.

An unstable link is not a great fix for a broken link, and the level of indirection added by lmgtfy makes it even less helpful.

I think it's pretty obvious I wasn't trying to be helpful, I was trying to discourage the sort of perverse laziness necessary to post a comment like that without even trying to google it. I could have just downvoted and moved on.

Edit: Okay fine.

It's not necessarily laziness, and I saw no evidence of a lack of trying to google it. The "Jesus Camp" link was given with little context and was an arbitrary Youtube link. Thus, it could have been referring to any number of things called "Jesus Camp" at the time this article was posted, which may or may not be the same thing that now (or for future readers) turns up in a Google search results page.

I acknowledge the legitimacy of demanding I google the phrase before requesting another link and will attempt to increase the frequency with which that's part of my response to such an occasion, but maintain the general usefulness of pointing out a broken link in a post, especially one that's part of a Sequence.

I acknowledge the legitimacy of demanding I google the phrase before requesting another link

I was being rather passive-aggressive, wasn't I? I apologize.

and will attempt to increase the frequency with which that's part of my response to such an occasion

I find it's a generally useful policy, yes.

but maintain the general usefulness of pointing out a broken link in a post, especially one that's part of a Sequence.

On this we agree.

An interesting (and in my opinion daring) point, Eliezer, although I'm not sure if it's true or not, because I'm not sure about the degree to which genetics, etc. plays a role in creating "evil mutants". After all, people who commit 9/11 type acts ARE rare. The 9/11 participants in my understanding included people with masters degrees and people with long periods of exposure to the West, and that even enjoyed Western comforts immediately prior to their act. I'm not sure if they're representative of "muslim males" as much as they're representative of people that belong to death cults. Just because they're widely admired in some parts of the world doesn't mean that they'd have many imitators. It defies most forms of "selfish gene" logic to kill onesself prior to procreating, particularly if one is a young healthy male. I do think it's possible that the actual 9/11 participants were deviant in all sorts of ways, rather than representatives of people that grow up culturally non-western and muslim rather than culturally western (muslim or not). However, I think you still make great points about the not-always-utilitarian human bias of picking a side and then supporting all of its arguments, rather than focusing on what mix of policy is actually best.

From what I can gather suicide bombers and the like are pretty normal people. Part of what makes normal people normal is that they're relatively easy to influence.

If you want to find something like evil mutants, try looking at those who recruit suicide bombers. On the other hand, it's probably harder to study them, and even they may not be as alien as we hope.

From what I can gather suicide bombers and the like are pretty normal people. Part of what makes normal people normal is that they're relatively easy to influence.

Well, suicide bombers are more likely to have engineering degrees than the general public. There's also some evidence that engineers are surprisingly likely to be creationists. I don't think engineers are evil mutants, but it does suggest that there are certain modes of thinking that are likely to have bad results. To repeat fairly standard speculation in this regard, engineers aren't taught critical thinking and are taught to not tolerate uncertainty. This is not a good combination.

To repeat fairly standard speculation in this regard, engineers aren't taught critical thinking and are taught to not tolerate uncertainty. This is not a good combination.

Full disclosure: I am (almost) an engineer.

I don't think that's quite correct (uncertainty is a huge concern of engineers), although it's getting there. I would speculate as follows:

  • We know a lot of science, but it's mostly divorced from its epistemic basis. We don't know how we know.
  • We have just enough "science cred" to feel entitled to have opinions on any & all scientific issues, but are probably not actually educated outside a small area.

Something I've wondered about in re the high proportion of engineers among suicide bombers-- I'd have thought that engineers would be last people in the world to think that you can improve things by giving them a good hard kick. Any theories about what I'm missing?

It's not that Muslim engineers have a special tendency to become jihadis. But engineers do stuff. They solve problems, they act. So when an engineer does join the jihad, they won't be half-hearted about it, and they'll probably be good at it. And in this regard, the jihad is exactly the same as all modern war: educated people who know something of physics and problem-solving always play a large role. That's my theory.

Another possible explanation would be that engineers possess technical skills and architectural know-how that makes them attractive recruits for terrorist organizations. But the recent study found that engineers are just as likely to hold leadership roles within these organizations as they are to be working hands-on with explosives. In any case, their technical expertise may not be that useful, since most of the methods employed in terrorist attacks are rudimentary. It's true that eight of the 25 hijackers on 9/11 were engineers, but it was their experience with box cutters and flight school, not fancy degrees, that counted in the end.

And if someone is good at making bombs (which is the role I would have expected for engineers) that's precisely the sort of person a terrorist organization wouldn't want to die.

I think.

One thing I've noticed is that everyone (ok, some huge proportion of people) thinks they're an expert on how to do effective terrorism.