In Adam Morton’s article “Empathy for the Devil”, Morton discusses the reason that one cannot truly empathize with a person who does evil acts. He points out that there is a major difference between understanding why someone does an atrocious act and understanding how that person could overcome the barrier of his or her own ethical values. For instance although someone can feel an understanding of the evildoer’s motivation of committing an atrocious act, he or she will still have a hard time understanding the reason for that person to choose to do the exact atrocious act instead of choosing other options. Morton calls this kind of empathy “pseudo-empathy”(327), and he claims that we do not attempt to empathize evils because all we can do for them is to “pseudo empathize” with them. However, I believe that one’s perpetration of evil acts has a lot to do with the situation he or she was in. By analyzing the situation, we can fully empathize with that perpetrator. So the reason that we cannot understand an evildoer’s decision of committing an evil act because we do not have enough insight of the situation he or she was in when committed the act.
As Paul Formosa suggests in “Understanding Evil Acts”, “many normal humans, in bad situations, are indeed capable of great evil.” He indicates that those who are law abiding in some situations may not do so in other situations, therefore it is the situation that makes them commit atrocious acts (64). He gives an example of Milgram ‘obedience’ experiment, in which the subject, being assigned as the “teacher”, is given a task of giving electric shocks to a “learner”, who is a confederate in the experiment, every time the learner’s answer to a question is wrong. The subject is told to ignore the scream of the learner and increase the voltage of the shock. The result of the experiment is that two third of the subjects fully obeyed the instruction to give electric shocks throughout the process. The evildoer in this case gives an innocent person electric shocks due to the compulsiveness of the environment, and has nothing to do with their moral standard. From this example we can see that some evil perpetrators do evil acts because their environment compels them to do so, and that is the only reason for them to commit that act.
According to Morton’s theory, we do not try to understand the evildoers because we can never understand that “how” question. Formosa’s answer to the “how” question is the situation the evildoers found themselves in (66). He calls this kind of situations evil-encouraging, in which one’s likelihood of performing evil acts is increased (66). Being within evil-encouraging situations can also lead to the increase in prevalence of evil-encouraging beliefs and group conflict. Morton does not consider the impact of one’s circumstance when trying to empathize evildoers. However, Formosa manages to empathize evildoers without pseudo empathy by presenting a possibility that can cause someone does atrocious act with understandable reasons for others to empathy with. He does this by using the Milgram experiment as an example to show us one group of evildoers that have no other mercurial motivations.
Considering all above, one may find Morton’s view rather incomplete. Morton’s attitude towards empathizing with evildoer is too pessimistic. We can try to empathize some evildoers who commit evil act because they are in evil encouraging environment as Formosa claims.
Formosa, Paul. “Understanding Evil Acts.” Human Studies, vol. 30, no. 2, 2007., pp. 57-77
Morton, Adam. “Empathy For The Devil.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives, edited by Amy Coplan, Peter Goldie, Oxford University Press, 2011, 318-330.