Much of my writing is based on the premise that evil begets evil or, as Auden so eloquently puts it, in his poem, “September 1, 1939”:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return”. (See http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/september-1-1939).
I do not contend that free will is an illusion, that we are prisoners of genetics or society. Many individuals who have experienced horrific abuse do not go on to become abusers. However the fact that significant numbers of the abused become perpetrators demonstrates that a vicious cycle can, often be set in train with parents abusing children who then go on to become abusers.
To take an example from my own writing. In my short story, Samantha, Sam is drugged and forced into prostitution by her brutal pimp, Barry. Barry possesses not a single redeeming feature. He is, quite simply a monster. Barry has, however been abused by his mother as a child (she locks him, as a 6-year-old little boy in a dark cupboard). From this ill treatment flows Barry’s view that,
“All women are bitches”.
He has experienced no love in his life and the brutality of Barry’s upbringing has destroyed the feelings of compassion which most of us, to a greater or lesser degree possess.
To take another example, in my story, The Hitch Hiker, a deeply troubled young woman exacts a terrible vengeance on men who stop to offer her a lift.
Both Barry and the Hitch Hiker demonstrate the validity of Auden’s view that, “Those to whom evil is done do evil in return”. Anyone reading much of my work might reach the conclusion that I deny the possibility of redemption, I do not. Deeply damaged individuals who have done terrible things can (and do) reform and go on to lead good and productive lives. However it does appear that a small number of people are, for whatever reason beyond help. I am speaking here of psychopaths. In contrast to most killers who can (and frequently do) show remorse for their actions the psychopath is incapable of genuine remorse (he may feign it to gain advantage but that is a wholly different issue). Barry would appear to fall into the category of psychopath, his psychopathic tendencies being derived from the abuse suffered as a child. He is, almost certainly beyond redemption.
Is Barry responsible for his actions? As a believer in free will my answer has to be yes on the basis that other equally damaged persons do not act in the manner he does.
Perhaps in the coming decades lawyers will argue that their clients should not be punished for their actions as they possess a genetic predisposition for psychopathy or, due to the lack of a particular chemical in the brain they can not be held responsible for their actions. Maybe this will happen, however (assuming such a thing exists), if certain individuals with a genetic predisposition to psychopathy commit horrendous crimes while others do not (as I suspect will be the case) then society will need to relinquish simplistic explanations for criminal behaviour and accept that “evil” stems from many and varied causes.
I am no scientist. I am, however suspicious of determinist theories whether they be Marxist or Eugenic in origin. “Evil” will, I suspect be forever with us and, in decades to come we will still be discussing why people do horrendous acts.