Will a stroke of neuroscience ever eradicate evil?

Ronald B. de Sousa and Douglas Heinrichs

in Responsibility and psychopathy

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print August 2010 | ISBN: 9780199551637
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754630 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Will a stroke of neuroscience ever eradicate evil?

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Cognitive science is widely regarded as having supplanted psychoanalysis as our most promising route to understanding the human mind. Nevertheless, both share a fundamental insight, in that each highlights, in a different way, the extraordinary extent of our self-ignorance. We may find, when we come to understand the neural mechanisms that govern our individual and collective motivations, that many of our traditional notions of ‘free-will’ and of ‘good and evil’ rest on systematic illusions. The neurology underlying the plight of psychopaths will illustrate this possibility. We argue that ‘Evil’ as traditionally understood is an essentially theological notion, which dissolves once we truly jettison religious superstition, and which cannot properly be applied to the psychopath. Notions of evil, freedom, guilt, and moral responsibility must be reformulated to be compatible with our understanding of human functioning based on neuroscience and yet make sense of the complex range of our responses to the psychopath, individually and collectively, as well as our intuition that he embodies absolute evil. While such a perspective may seem alarming at first, we shall suggest how it might provide foundations for the reconstruction of a more robust humanism, allowing for the genuine emergence of inter-subjective responsibility and the moral community.

Chapter.  9158 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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