Human Universals and the Myth of Pure Evil

The anthropologist Donald Brown came up with a list of human traits across cultures.  They are: Prestige and status, inequality of power and wealth, property and inheritance, pursuit of pleasure and happiness, reciprocity, punishment, sexual modesty, sexual regulations, sexual jealousy, male preference for young women as sexual partners, a division of labour by sex, hostility to other groups,  and conflicts within the group including violence , rape and murder. Associated with these traits are the following universal emotions: Sadness and Misery, grief, anger, jealousy, greed, selfishness, arrogance, fear, disgust, liking, gratitude, sympathy, kindness, guilt, happiness.

The list may not be exhaustive but nevertheless interesting. For one thing, it reassures us that we are not alone or unique as individuals. We are all capable of exhibiting all these emotions – positive and negative. The differences between any two persons perhaps lies in the degree to which they express these qualities. It’s a question of which emotion predominates in each individual at a particular instant.

The human universals also busts the myth of pure evil.  We generally classify people as either pure good or pure evil. Consider the following experience of mine: An old office colleague of mine was considered by everyone known in the company as uncooperative, intolerant, jealous and pure evil. However, since he was part of the senior management, we had to interact with him regularly. My first interaction only confirmed what everyone told me already. For several years I used to avoid interacting with him as much as possible. But as I became mature emotionally (as most of us do with age), I tried to understand this guy. Soon it became clear to me that his problem was a sense of great insecurity. Most of his reactions could be explained in terms of insecurity. He would feel threatened when he was asked to share some data or information. His defence mechanism to preserve his job was to be uncooperative and keep everyone away. He wanted to make himself indispensable to the organization. Little do such people realize that they have a lot to lose by isolating themselves. I understood this behaviour when I tried to converse with him on topics that are inconsequential to both of us in the company. He would freely exchange his information on such issues. As he aged and became mature, it was a matter of time before he changed himself and started sharing info on work related technical issues with me at least. Needless to say, he turned out to be my good friend for collaborative work.

The point of the story is that it’s meaningless to categorize anyone as either pure evil or pure good. One’s background and situations have a great influence on one’s behaviour – good or bad.

Our epics are full of stories which drive home this point effectively. Valmiki was a decoit before he got enlightened and wrote the great epic Ramayana. Yudhishtara, who is known as Dharma personified, had his weak moments when he swerved away from good conduct.( eg: when he gambled away his wife Draupadi). On the other hand, even Duryodhana, who is considered universally as pure evil, had a point of view.

Yet another interesting observation on the list of human universals is that the number of negative emotions are much more than the positive ones. Out of the sixteen listed, there is only one positive emotion, that is, happiness (other positive emotions like kindness, gratitude are a result of being happy).  Doesn’t this validate a profound point made by Tolstoy on happiness. He said: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

The emotion happiness has an evolutionary footprint. Happy people are fit and hence reproduce children who are happy in turn. And when are we happy? When we are wealthy, well-fed, comfortable, safe,  knowledgeable, respected, loved etc. The list is endless indeed. This sets up a competition and struggle. The tragedy of such a struggle is that happiness lies in not one’s success but on others’ failure. Clearly, the pursuit of happiness has the seeds of unhappiness within. What a paradox! Only the wise who grasp this manage to get out of this trap of Human Universals.


Published in: on June 11, 2016 at 3:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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