Research indicates that morality might be a lot more than just a set of invented or learned rules. Knowing what is right seems to have deep evolutionary roots and may actually be an innate part of human nature. But if that’s true, if we are all born with a moral sense what happens then to those of us who go against that? Join us for this episode as we try to look beyond evil.


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Thanks to everyone who has made this amazing journey possible — family and friends, people who write amazing software like Audacity and BTV Solo, folks who provide great B2B services like libsyn, smart and kind people who share their knowledge and experience online for others to learn, platforms for artists that allow us to share and benefit from each others talents like soundsnap. And last but not least my one-of-a-kind funny, beautiful, smart and patient husband, thanks for pushing me, pulling me back, and sometimes just holding me…I love you!

This is Opacity Zero, a show about challenging the unknown with curiosity. I am Melanie Heymans, welcome back to episode II – Terrifyingly Normal.

Join me for a little thought experiment and imagine you can only rescue one of each of the following, which do you save?

  • A child or an adult
  • A stranger or your dog
  • Your partner or a Nobel Prize Winner
  • Your entire family or the entire canine species
  • A bottle with the cure for cancer or your brother

Hm, though choices or maybe not? Let’s briefly take a look at some of our picks and the possible motivations behind them. So who did you rescue, a child or an adult, and why did you decide to rescue them? Did you go for the child, cause it needs protection, it’s at the beginning of its life, it has more potential? Or would you rescue the adult cause they are contributing more to society, have more responsibility, more people that depend on them, more realized potential?

What about the stranger and the dog, who did you rescue and why? The stranger cause human life is worth more than that of a dog, cause you would hope that someone else would choose you over their dog too? Or would you rescue your dog cause you love your dog and if you are honest there is no reason for you to care about a person you don’t know at all.

And finally how about the bottle with the cure for cancer or your brother? Which did you decide to rescue? The cure for cancer cause it would save millions of lives, and you know your brother would understand? Cause the lives of many are worth more than the life of one? Or would you rescue your brother, cause he is your brother, and there are many successful treatments for cancer out there and you are sure some day someone will come up with the cure again. They did it once, right?

Personally, even though I could answer these questions pretty quickly in the beginning, the longer I thought about them the more complex and less straightforward they seemed to me. It was almost like there was a morally right answer and an honest answer, does that make any sense? Like with these personality tests we sometimes “ahem” have to take, like “Are you a good listener?” “What’s your conflict management style?” “Are you a power negotiator?” — with these assessments you often know which answers are the right ones but you also know that they are not necessarily describing your behavior. That’s how I started to feel the more I thought about the question of who to save, there seemed to be the right answer and the right answer for me.

So I was wondering, why is that, why is my first impulse to save the bottle with the cure for cancer but the second one is “but wait, what do you mean OR my brother?” and it seems that there are two evolutionary forces at play here. One is my moral sense and the other one is my so called selfish gene. While my moral sense tells me to do what is right, my selfish gene tells me to overvalue kin and clan, or in other words my own genetic code in the form of my brother. In this specific example these two forces are competing, but the winner is clear to me, I will, despite the fact that it might be considered morally wrong, rescue my brother — even though I do not even have a brother. Now I am sure that some of you agree with my choice while others don’t, and I can’t help but wonder what causes this divide, don’t we share the same moral sense?

Well our moral sense is actually a quite complex system, composed of an interplay between evolutionary factors, cultural and customary believes and practices, and personal lifestyle choices, making it universal and personal at the same time. How so?

As you might remember from episode one, morality is defined as some code of conduct agreed upon by a society or group that defines what is right and what is wrong and this code is generally accepted by and applies to all members of this group. Many of these moral agreements are shaped by the culture, believes, practices and overall lifestyle of a particular group and they might differ quite a bit from other groups. Still according to research there are five moral themes that are universal to all humans and that re-appear in all cultures, groups and societies:

  • The first one is Harm, as in the understanding that it is wrong to cause harm to others
  • The second one is Fairness, as in the responsibility to treat others fairly
  • The third one is Community, as in the importance of creating, fostering and protecting community
  • The fourth one is Authority, as in the respect and acceptance of legitimate authority and the last one is
  • Purity, as in the value of purity and cleanliness

How these themes are ranked in importance and which one is used to moralize which area of life highly depends on culture, society, groups and individual people. Still research indicates that these 5 themes have deep evolutionary roots and may be an innate part of human nature. I found that a quite interesting claim, especially in relation to our topic and decided to explore it a little further.

If we are all born with the moral sense that it is wrong to harm or kill another human being, what happens then to those of us that do kill? Are they not born with this moral sense or does someone or something take that sense away, like going deaf or blind?

One of the possible answers I found is Kant’s categorical imperative, an ethical theory that is based on the belief that there are objective ethical rules in the world and that these rules are based on reason. According to Kant every human can come to understand and agree on moral laws through autonomous reflection. For example if we would all go out an kill people who offended us, we would soon kill off our complete species, so that sounds like a bad idea. Or to make it a little more personal, if it would be morally justified to kill someone who offends you, I would most likely not be alive anymore, someone would have taken me out a long time ago. So yes I can absolutely agree that it is not okay to kill someone because they offended me. I tried to think through a few other examples and I would say generally this theory makes sense but it also heavily relies on the idea that all people are fundamentally capable of reasoning in the same manner and on the same level. And that might just not be the case. Let’s take a closer look at Kant’s theory and its relevance for our purposes by exploring how we define the capability to reason today.

The ability to reason is defined as the capacity to consciously make sense of things, apply logic, establish and verify facts, and change or justify practices, institutions and beliefs, based on new or existing information. So far, so good.

Now what this definition doesn’t really tell us is what makes someone a reasonable person, as in being in accordance with reason or an unreasonable person, as in not conformable to reason. In other words, what distinguishes disagreement from faulty reasoning or the inability to reason?

If I believe that the needs of the individual outweigh the needs of the group and you believe that the needs of the group outweigh the needs of the individual, and based on that I decide to save my brother while you decide to save the cure for cancer is it then fair to say that either one of us isn’t capable of reasoning?

I guess that’s where the 5 universal moral themes come into play. For Kant’s theory to make any sense we would have to agree that we all reason over the same knowledge base or over the same moral themes like harm, fairness, community, authority and purity.

What does it then mean to be reasonable or unreasonable? Well in a simplified way being reasonable then means making fair and pure decisions that foster community, respect legitimate authority and don’t cause any harm, while being unreasonable means making unfair and shady decisions that disregard community, ignore authority and cause harm to others.

Now if we continue to assume that we all reason over the same five universal moral themes we have to conclude that those of us who are extremely unreasonable — as for example serial killers or mass murderers — aren’t reasoning in the same manner or on the same level as the rest of us. And if we define reasonable decision making as the norm — there are after all more people that don’t become serial killers than there are actual serial killers — what is the relationship between rational agency and normativity then?

Whenever a serial or mass murderer commits one of their horrifying crimes one question is always asked: Why? Why did this person commit such a terrifying and senseless crime? How was this person capable of such an act?

And generally we come up with one of two answers, evil or seriously mentally ill. We talked about the concept of evil and its inadequacy in our last episode but let’s take a closer look at the mental illness claim. What exactly is a mental illness?

The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the standard classification of mental disorders in the United States — also called the DSM-5 defines a mental disorder as a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological or developmental process underlying mental functioning.

Now even though the DSM-5 goes on to describe more than 400 different types of mental illness there are two specific disorder categories that are most often associated with serial and mass murderers.

The first category are psychotic disorders, like for example schizophrenia. These types of disorders can result in bizarre delusions, hallucinations, disorganized thinking or abnormal motor behavior, diminished emotional expression and avolition.

The second category are personality disorders, like paranoid or antisocial personality disorder — which is actually the official psychiatric term for a psychopath. These types of disorders can result in pervasive patterns of violation of the rights, wishes and feelings of others, as well as a grandiose sense of self worth, finding pleasure and gratification in committing certain crimes and a complete lack of empathy as well as a total failure to accept responsibility.

Now if we look at the definition of these two disorder types our critique of Kant’s categorical imperative as in that some people might just not reason in the same manner or on the same level as most of us, begins to gain some traction. How could someone who suffers from symptoms like that reason in a sound and logical way?

So could that be our answer? If you are able to reason properly you won’t kill but if you experience a certain type of serious mental disorder your reasoning becomes dysfunctional and overwrites your moral sense?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness roughly 9 percent of U.S. adults, ages 18 and older, have a personality disorder while about 1 percent suffer from psychotic disorders. This means that about 30 million of us live with a psychotic or personality disorder. Now if we put this number, 30 million, next to the FBI statistics for serial and mass murder for the past 15 years, which show a combined incident number of about 600, it’s easy to see that the answer is just not that simple. Certain serious mental disorders might influence your reasoning and behavior but they most definitely don’t make you a violent offender. It’s actually very important to know that a vast majority of people who suffer from mental illness are not violent, and most violent acts are committed by people who are not mentally ill.

So if there is no evil and no mental illness that can explain the reasoning and behaviors of serial killers and mass murderers, what can? Well, scientists and psychologists have been working for decades trying to answer that question. And while there is still no clear answer the huge amounts of data created, collected and analyzed are beginning to reveal certain distinct patterns.

The most important one might be the conclusion that there is no generic template or profile for extremely deviant and violent offenders like serial killers or mass murderers. They are not limited to any specific demographic group and there are no specific combinations of traits or characteristics shown to differentiate them from other violent offenders.

The prevailing theory seems to be that there is a delicate and complex balance between biological, social and environmental factors that can trigger serial or mass murder. Let’s take a look at some of those factors together.

One of the many factors attributed to serial killers or mass murderers is an unstable family background and the likely absence of infant bonding. According to several different studies serial killers often grow up with only one parent, report having a negative relationship with one or both of their parents or parental figures, and often come from families with criminal pasts or psychiatric histories. Many of them report physical and/or psychological abuse, as well as the witnessing of sexual violence or being sexually abused themselves. Again there are many people who go through horrible experiences like this that don’t become killers, so again we are talking about correlation not causality.

Another correlated factor seems to be loneliness and isolation from peers, especially in their childhood. Many serial killers had lonely childhoods, were bullied and harbored secret aggressive fantasies. Many of them didn’t fit in and used their time alone to develop and evolve an often violent fantasy live.

Another really interesting factor that seems to play a role in triggering serial or mass murder is physical trauma, particularly head injuries. Many serial killers have a record of head injuries when they were children or recent injuries before they started to kill. According to science brain injuries can cause psychopathic behavior changes and many of those diagnosed with an antisocial personality disorder show abnormal balances of chemicals linked to compulsive and violent behavior. Still a majority of people who suffer from brain injuries or antisocial personality disorder are not violent at all. So once again this is only one factor in a very delicate and complex balance.

And last but not least substance abuse, through the pregnant mother or through the killer him or herself, and the resulting damage could play a role as well. But in the end what makes a serial killer or mass murderer still remains a mystery to all of us. So many people experience or live with one or more of the factors we just talked about and grow up to be kind and caring people, while there are serial killers who as far as we know experienced one or even none of these circumstances but were still capable of committing the most unimaginable and horrible crimes.

All we know according to our current understandings is that there seems to be a complex balance between personal social conditions and biological and genetic factors, and
that healthy social factors might prevent a biochemically unstable individual from committing criminal acts while a healthy biochemistry might protect a person with a highly unstable environment from becoming a killer. Extremely violent and deviant offenders might emerge when both elements are out of balance.

But since it’s not possible to identify all of the factors that influence why some of us develop a moral sense and follow the moral code and laws set forth by the society we live in, it similarly is not possible to identify all the factors that influence someone to choose to go against that.