Many are aghast at the evil acts suddenly erupting all over the world – most of it in the name of jihad. Not a few are actually inspired by the mayhem and join the fight. The new world order is outrageously brutal; things had seemed so reliably predictable during the cold war. Popular pundits blame George W Bush or Barack H Obama.

Of course, in the old days we were not inundated 24/7 with continuous news streams covering all the wars and ethnic cleansings of the moment in faraway places: Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Czechoslovakia, Uganda, South Africa etc. Total killed in such conflicts in the 20th century ~100 million. The average person was more oblivious in the good old days.

The scary thought is that things may actually have improved over the centuries. We don’t really know what life was like in distant times but this paragraph from a review in the WSJ of a book by Robert Harris on the life of Cicero suggests that evil has always been a prominent part of our social fabric:

“Nonetheless, Mr. Harris captures the senselessness of triumviral intrigue magnificently, not relenting as the players meet their gruesome ends. Crassus was slain at Carrhae in 53 B.C., Pompey on an Egyptian beachhead in 48 B.C., following his defeat at Pharsalus. Both were posthumously decapitated. Cato, having unsuccessfully attempted to take his life, tore the stitches from his wound, pulled out his intestines and bled himself to death at Utica in 46 B.C. Caesar was savagely murdered on the senate floor in 44 B.C. Cicero was proscribed by Octavian and Antony in 43 B.C., losing his hands and head soon after. Antony killed himself in 30 B.C., one year after the Battle of Actium.”

The religious myth that the devil has corrupted our pure souls, or some such, is wrong. Evil resides within each one of us, placed there during the process of creation. It is up to each one of us to find ways to control it. Society and culture tries to promote the good and discourage the bad but things can spin out of control so easily. Science, religion, philosophy and politics all have their roles to play.

Will there be an end to the personal crimes committed by sociopaths, murderers, rapists, thieves and the like? Probably not, but it does seem reasonable to tackle the phenomenon of social movements intent on killing, raping and pillaging. But is there a cure for the waves of mass cruelty and suffering that wash over humanity? The mystery answer has been blowing in the wind for a very long time.

Humankind should of course strive for improvement of our world, if only we could figure out what the problem is more precisely. Commitments to various communities (religious, philosophical, political, ethnic, national, ideological – even tribal or criminal gangs) have been the more obvious strategies for success, but they have actually been the very source of the mayhem  when a mob mentality supervenes. Philosophers tend to be peaceful by default, if for no other reason than they spend their time arguing with each other. Too often, however, fear of the other leads to a fight or flight confrontation.

Somewhat counterintuitively, the solution to this universal problem may reside in a fuller recognition of the important role of the individual. Communities should be organized so as to foster involvement by more individuals to understand and solve problems, and then to act for the common good. This may be the true source of progress. Morality is an emergent quality of a super-complex system of individuals acting independently in their immediate interests as they see fit. All that would be needed is a sufficient number of ‘virtuous’ people who are willing to make the effort – what exactly that means is for them to decide. It does suggest that we be a little more skeptical about the pronouncements of others who claim to know what we should accept as reality.

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