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The Science of Evil Just Caught up to Thomas Aquinas



In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas argues with specificity the maxim that many Catholics have often repeated in the contemplation of evil as a choice: even in committing evil, man always seeks a perceived good

From the Summa:

Now a certain order is to be found in those things that are apprehended universally. For that which, before aught else, falls under apprehension, is “being,” the notion of which is included in all things whatsoever a man apprehends. Wherefore the first indemonstrable principle is that “the same thing cannot be affirmed and denied at the same time,” which is based on the notion of “being” and “not-being”: and on this principle all others are based, as is stated in Metaph. iv, text. 9. Now as “being” is the first thing that falls under the apprehension simply, so “good” is the first thing that falls under the apprehension of the practical reason, which is directed to action: since every agent acts for an end under the aspect of good. Consequently the first principle of practical reason is one founded on the notion of good, viz. that “good is that which all things seek after.” Hence this is the first precept of law, that “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” All other precepts of the natural law are based upon this: so that whatever the practical reason naturally apprehends as man’s good (or evil) belongs to the precepts of the natural law as something to be done or avoided.

Since, however, good has the nature of an end, and evil, the nature of a contrary, hence it is that all those things to which man has a natural inclination, are naturally apprehended by reason as being good, and consequently as objects of pursuit, and their contraries as evil, and objects of avoidance. Wherefore according to the order of natural inclinations, is the order of the precepts of the natural law. Because in man there is first of all an inclination to good in accordance with the nature which he has in common with all substances: inasmuch as every substance seeks the preservation of its own being, according to its nature: and by reason of this inclination, whatever is a means of preserving human life, and of warding off its obstacles, belongs to the natural law.


[T]here belong to the natural law, first, certain most general precepts, that are known to all; and secondly, certain secondary and more detailed precepts, which are, as it were, conclusions following closely from first principles. As to those general principles, the natural law, in the abstract, can nowise be blotted out from men’s hearts. But it is blotted out in the case of a particular action, in so far as reason is hindered from applying the general principle to a particular point of practice, on account of concupiscence or some other passion, as stated above (Question 77, Article 2). But as to the other, i.e. the secondary precepts, the natural law can be blotted out from the human heart, either by evil persuasions, just as in speculative matters errors occur in respect of necessary conclusions; or by vicious customs and corrupt habits, as among some men, theft, and even unnatural vices, as the Apostle states (Romans 1), were not esteemed sinful.

In a report yesterday from the Agence France-Presse, it related that there has existed for some time now a scientific theory concerning a so-called “banality of evil.” Its origins come from a book written by Hannah Arendt about a surprising discovery during the trial of Adolf Eichmann, considered one of the chief architects of the Holocaust:

Far from the monster she had expected, Arendt found that Eichmann came across more like a petty bureaucrat, prompting her to coin the term “banality of evil” to suggest how ordinary people, by conforming, could commit atrocities.

The theory on the “banality of evil” suggested that otherwise ordinary people might commit atrocities if they felt that they had to -a facet of the “I was just following orders” defense sometimes used by members of the military and law enforcement community when charged with excessive use of force or war crimes.

Researchers have discovered, however, that there is much more choice involved than they originally suspected:

Now psychologists, having reviewed an opinion-shaping experiment carried out more than 50 years ago, are calling for a rethink.

“The more we read and the more data we collect, the less evidence we find to support the banality of evil idea, the notion that participants are simply ‘thoughtless’ or ‘mindless’ zombies who don’t know what they’re doing and just go along for the sake of it,” said Alex Haslam, a professor at the University of Queensland in Australia.

“Our sense is that some form of identification, and hence choice, generally underpins all tyrannical behaviour.”

Their detective work focused on legendary experiments conducted in 1961 by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram.

Volunteers, told they were taking part in an experiment on learning, were led to believe they were administering an electric shock to a man, dubbed the “learner” who had to memorise pairs of words.

Every time the learner made a mistake, the “teacher” was told by a stern-faced, lab-coated official to crank up the shock, starting with a mild 15 volts and climaxing at a lethal 450 volts.

The experiment was fake — the learner was an actor and the shocks never happened. The teacher could hear, but not see, the learner.

Frighteningly, in one test, nearly two-thirds of volunteers continued all the way to “lethal” voltage, even when the learner pleaded for mercy, wept or screamed in agony.

These experiments became enshrined in textbooks as an illustration of how the conscience can be put on hold under orders.


The new research, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, took a closer look at Milgram’s “teachers”.

A team sifted through a box in the Yale archives that contained comments written by the volunteers after they were told the purpose of the experiment, and that the torture had been fake.

Of the 800 participants, 659 submitted a reaction. Some said they had felt unease or distress during the tests, but most reported being positive about the experience, some extremely so.

“To be part of such an important experiment can only make one feel good,” said one.

“I feel I have contributed in some small way toward the development of man and his attitudes towards others,” said another.

“If it [is] your belief that these studies will benefit mankind then I say we should have more of them,” said another.

Were these happy comments spurred by relief, after volunteers learned they had not, in fact, hurt anyone?

No, suggests the paper. A sense of pleasure, of duty fulfilled, of having served a higher calling, pervaded the comment cards.

Milgram had also given the volunteers a dose of mission-priming before the experiment. Without saying what it entailed, he told them that what they would do would advance the cause of knowledge.

Participants’ awe of Ivy-League Yale played a role, too — obedience levels were higher there than when experiments were conducted in offices in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Milgram “was a skilful dramatist as well as a psychologist,” said Kathryn Millard, a professor at Macquarie University, Sydney.

Far from supinely obeying the lab-coated overseer, volunteers escalated the shocks believing they were acting for a noble cause — science, argues the paper.

It is always disturbing when we are confronted with the human capacity for evil. Nonetheless, to ignore this, to think that  man is essentially good, but can be corrupted by influences around him — as did some of the chief enlightenment thinkers, like Rousseau — is a mistake. On the other hand, it is also a mistake to believe that man is essentially bad, impenetrable by the gentling effects of grace, and only capable of ensconced in God’s goodness but not infused by it,  as with Martin Luther in his idea of man as a “dung heap, covered with snow.”

The truth is, ours is the story of the fall, but also of the Cross. The Catholic understanding of man is that of not only Adam and Eve, but the new Adam, and the new Eve. Redemption is real, bought with a horrible price – but the merits of the sacrifice on Calvary are truly efficacious. In aligning our wills with His, we begin to follow the natural inclination, written on our hearts, not just to pursue what we perceive as good, but what is actually good. Grace does not ignore our fallen nature, nor does it merely obscure it. Instead, it penetrates, and makes all things new.

Re-reading the passage from Aquinas above, there is a beautiful harmony to be found in the words of the researchers only just now reaching the centuries-old conclusions of the angelic doctor:

“The ethical issues here (are) more complex than commonly supposed,” Haslam told AFP by email.

“It is apparent Milgram assuaged participants’ concerns by making them believe in a noxious ideology — namely, that it is acceptable to do otherwise unconscionable things in the cause of science.”

Stephen Reicher, a professor at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, said the implications were far-reaching.

It showed that ordinary people could commit acts of extraordinary harm, but that thoughtlessness was not the main motivator, he said.

We argue that people are aware of what they are doing, but that they think it is the right thing to do,” he said.

Aquinas asserts that the “first principle of practical reason” is that “good is that which all things seek after.” This is part of our nature, and our nature comes from God.

Over the years, many have come to believe that science and faith are irreconcilable, but this is a false dichotomy. Truth is truth, and what we can come to know with the certitude of faith we may also come to discover through the light of natural reason. It should therefore surprise exactly no one that those scientists concerned with understanding human nature would eventually reach this age-old understanding.

You’ll just have to excuse them for being a little late to the party. They took the long way around.

3 thoughts on “The Science of Evil Just Caught up to Thomas Aquinas”

  1. Relevance of the Blessed “Ox” to today? (1) To ask if the perceived good we are following IS a good; and (2) to ask ourselves if we are pursuing it in the right way. Thus, many progressives and Islamists are pursuing what they have been told are real, attainable good things. However….

  2. Thank you for reminding us of this great Dominican! I remember being told by the Dominican nuns that Francis and Dominic worked hand in hand–the one to raise the heart to God, the other to raise the mind. They were saying that Dominicans see humans as basically good, but deceived into pursuing the wrong good, so teaching and preaching is the cure.


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