Evil as an Emergent Property

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Solzhenitsyn believed that all people were capable of taking part in evil actions and that it was pointless to spend our time searching out people we considered to be pure “evil”.

And yet, horrific things happen every day in the world that seem to only be explained by the existence of “evil”. How do we reconcile this with the belief that we are all good people?

It’s my hypothesis that evil people aren’t required for horrific acts to occur. Rather, evil is actually an emergent property, meaning that an evil machine can arise although none of the aggregate parts of the machine are evil. How is this accomplished? Two parts: compartmentalization and bureaucracy.


This is both a top-down and a bottom-up phenomenon.

Top-Down compartmentalization refers to the physical separation of departments and responsibilities.

Bottom-Up compartmentalization refers to the psychological processes individuals themselves employ, generally as a defense mechanism.


The top loves compartmentalization because it’s easier to impose their will upon the organization. This isn’t by itself evil, by the way, it’s just self-serving. If I believe my vision for the organization is what is right for the organization, I want as few barriers as possible to creating my vision. If you love Elon Musk, you want him to be able to impose his vision on the world without much impediment. We want to support our benevolent monarchs but we risk giving a tyrant power once the monarch is gone. The danger is creating a system that has no checks against evil should it eventually present itself.


The bottom has incentives to love compartmentalization, namely:

  • Intellectual/physical laziness.
  • Monetary rewards for keeping their job.
  • Cognitive dissonance(refusal to see evil).

The bottom has an incentive to ignore evil and only go about their day-to-day jobs. I’m a truck driver at Auschwitz; my family is starving back in Germany since the fall of the Weimar Republic and driving for the Army pays well. They provide everything I need so I can send my salary back to my family. I don’t want to question what’s happening inside Auschwitz because it threatens my ability to provide for my family. So I purposefully compartmentalize my job and only do what I’m told; I deliver thousands of pounds of cargo but don’t dare to look to see what’s inside of those pallets.


The second ingredient is a system that frustrates whistle-blowers and dissidents into giving up their quests for ridding evil. This is done through a web of bureaucracy. A particularly effective version is one that disguises itself as a guardian of security and public health. One could imagine examples of this being three-letter government departments(EPA, FDA, DoE). Simply creating a system that is intentionally difficult to navigate will eventually be sniffed out so it works best by having a system of red tape that’s purpose is to safeguard:

  • Fraud(internal and external)
  • Public health
  • Privacy
  • Trade secrets
  • Product quality(QA)

The setup of these systems would be questioned if done only to create organizational quicksand so be sure to compartmentalize the decisions and jobs as much as possible.

The Way Forward

So, if the theory holds up that evil can propagate without evil people existing in a system, what do we do with that knowledge? How do we stop its propagation and organize ourselves to limit its emergence?

We’ll explore that in the second part of this blog series. 🙂

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