The concept of malice

Chris asked:

What would drive a person to hurt another intentionally?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

On the face of this, it seems a rather odd question. People hurt other people all the time, for a variety of reasons. One example would be if two people are competing for a resource. It might be food. That can be a zero sum game. If one person gets the food the other starves. Knowing this, and facing the prospect of starvation yourself, you might well act in your own self-interest, with the inevitable consequence that someone else suffers.

Of course, you might say, ‘Why not share’, and that’s a perfectly good question. But many people don’t, or won’t. Because they are selfish. The question to ask here is not, ‘Why be selfish’ but rather ‘Why be unselfish’. How does altruism arise? What is its motivation?

However, your question is different. There is a critical difference between doing an act, for whatever reason, that you know will result in hurt — your ‘second intention’ — and intentionally causing hurt. In the latter case, the reason is deliberately to cause harm, or hurt. But why would anyone want to do this?

One possible explanation would be along the lines proposed by the biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene (1976). We hurt others in order to punish, and we punish as a means of adjusting the behaviour of the other person, a strategy that is built into our genes. He argues that between pure self-interest and pure altruism there is a more effective strategy in evolutionary terms, which he calls ‘the grudger’. If you don’t reciprocate my generous action towards you — for example, scratching your back — then I will look for a means to punish, pay you back for your selfishness.

Somehow, this leaves me cold. When you think of acts of terrible revenge, deliberately done to innocents, the rationale of ‘punishing’ somehow doesn’t cover it. Like the bombing of Dresden, the 75th anniversary of which occurred yesterday. Many people who had endured the Blitz cheered, despite knowing that thousands upon thousands of innocent children would have been amongst the dead, burned to a crisp in the fire storm.

— The horror of it.

An analytic psychotherapist that I know once recommeded a book to me, The Tyranny of Malice by Joseph Berke (1988). The author makes the case that there are deep reasons, accounted for by Kleinian psychoanalytic theory, why human beings like to hurt, why we sometimes act with malice. I don’t know whether the theory is true. I’m not a psychotherapist or a follower of Klein. But the very fact that a theory is needed here shows something: what it shows is simply that you have asked a very good question, the answer to which is very far from clear.

Another work which has had a considerable impact on psychoanalytic theory is Ian D. Suttie The Origins of Love and Hate published in 1935, after his death that same year. Over the years following the Great War, Suttie was involved in an ongoing debate with Freud, rejecting the latter’s theory of the ‘death drive’.

It may very well be the case that we need to look elsewhere than philosophy, to an empirically based theory of human nature. The philosophical point is in recognizing that gritty fact.

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