A review in parts of "De Meeste Mensen Deugen" (2): evil bowed its weary head to the many facts dispensed by Rutger Bregman

From God to evil: theologically a fitting change of scenery. But first let us consider the main thrust of Bregman’s argument. We haven’t done that yet. The central idea he is proposing is that humans, throughout history, are cooperative and friendly creatures.

He calls us Homo puppy. For tens of thousands of years, Bregman posits, humans roamed the earth in small bands of nomads and avoided conflicts. The hunter-gatherers wandering around in vast landscapes had rather relaxed membership policies, and switch-overs from one group to another was possible. No wars were fought, no concentration camps were built.

However, once agriculture and private property came on the scene, wars came into being as well, so archeology suggest. These phenomena seem to coincide. Nevertheless, the ‘war era’ accounts for only the “last 5% of human history”. The shadow it casts on the whole of human history seems limited in terms of time, but perhaps not in size. But let that pass.

Suggesting phenomena is of course only the beginning of an explanation of the evils we have seen the past 200 years at least. Bregman calls in the expertise of evolutionary psychologists. They propose the idea of a mismatch: a lack of preparation of our physiological and mental make-up for modernity. As things changed once agriculture and private property became institutionalised, we lagged behind. But what does this mismatch mean exactly? Bregman comes up with an answer.

For one: empathy. Hunter-gatherers becoming farmers and starting to live in villages, the latter began focussing on property (e.g. food and housing) and their own kin. Outsiders could be seen as a threat to both. Xenophobia entered the equation. And power (of chieftains, kings, and generals) cemented this development.

We thus fight for and with our group, our “brother in arms”, against the perceived enemy, the others not part of our group, such as found by researchers studying soldiers of the Second World War. It was not about democracy vs naziism, ideology vs ideology. Groups were fighting groups because brothers-in-arms don’t let each other down.

Bregman concludes that empathy in a way breeds xenophobia. They are both sides of the same coin. By shining a too bright a spotlight on our relatives and friends, outsiders remain in the dark; strangers. The Homo puppy simply is not capable, yet, to shake hands with those not part of the group in this historically ‘new world’ of ownership and private property.

On Auschwitz he remarks that the perpetrators weren’t monsters but indoctrinated and manipulated by those in power to do evil because they thought it was good. They believed to be on the good side of history together with the group they belonged to.

Bregman takes long strides and uses substantial empirical data as to get home to his message. But is his argument convincing? Hardly. A first difficulty is that he simply migrates the question on evil from one level to another -from the actual perpetrator to the one in power not doing the dirty work- without really getting to grips with the evil, of in this case mass-murder, as such. The dirt is swept under the rug so to speak. It seems that the foot-soldiers are only partly to blame and those in power at least carry the full brunt of the guilt. To be sure, he doesn’t exonerate the guilty; far from it.

But if people on the whole are agreeable, what makes those in power more likely to be disagreeable, even wielding their power to present evil as good? Power? Bregman makes here the much-made mistake of understanding epistemology -all the data he shares with his readers on Homo puppy, empathy, xenophobia and power- as ontology -the nature of our being. Any empirical data is reductionist by nature, yet Bregman inflates ‘his’ data to ontological proportions. Result: power itself is hardly touched on.

A much more damning flaw is related to the question on evil being regarded as good. How can this be? Although he repeats again and again that killing another person is very difficult to do, mass murder is in the end ‘doable’ by labelling it as good. What Bregman thus in fact suggests is that when push comes to shove humans cannot really make a distinction between good and evil. And that makes no sense whatsoever.

We are capable of distinguishing good from evil. Period. That means that we do understand that ‘repackaged evil’, now labelled as ‘good’, is still evil. We know that and Bregman’s argument is exactly about that. And the fact that we can elucidate this ‘repackaging’ is precisely the proof of our knowing of good and evil. Bregman’s own repudiation of the crimes committed leaves us in no doubt.

If that is so, then he and anybody else have in fact a moral standard by which to judge evil, good and ‘repackaged evil’, no matter how well the packaging hides its evil content. We stand above the argument, so to speak, otherwise the argument itself could never be made. C.S. Lewis calls this the ‘Moral Law’ in Mere Christianity:

“Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires—one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation). But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.”

Nevertheless, Bregman argues that those like Eichmann who were responsible for so many deaths are immersed in ‘repackaged evil’ so much, that in fact they see (understand, embrace) their murderous behaviour as good. But then of course, Bregman cannot make his argument stick.

What makes us so sure that we are not now immersed in this reversed morality illusion forced upon us by the powers-that-be (of perhaps demonic quality, if you believe in such a thing)? Is morality then an illusion in the first place? But, by being capable of formulating exactly these questions makes us rise above the whole mix-up. We can see the difference between good and evil, and we do!

Now, don’t confuse empirical data with the (absence of) logic in Bregman’s argument. Obviously, we can be forced to believe that killing is good, through drugs or indoctrination, with the caveat that some are more susceptible than others (and I am not talking about being forced to kill on the pain of death of your loved ones).

The powers-that-be can forcefully blow smoke in our eyes as a result of which all borders seem to vanish: evil is good. And yes, possessions, an us-them divide, nationalism or racism driven to extremes no doubt could, under the ‘right’ conditions, engender murderous violence.

However, despite all the political, physical, and pharmacological pressures and conditions, we still know the difference between good and evil. That makes us human in the first place. With all the empirical brouhaha, Bregman has rendered an argument that is self-referential incoherent. It simply cannot stand.

But I am still not at the end of my critique. There is even ‘worse’ to come that strikes at the heart of Bregman’s argument. More on “De Meeste Mensen Deugen” later …


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