A headline from The Independent (White, 2017)
Last night, a gunman opened fire in a large crowd at a country music concert in Las Vegas, Nevada. He brutally murdered more than 50 people and wounded hundreds more. It was an act of pure evil.
Donald Trump’s recent televised address (Borchers & Scott, 2017)
Durden…was riding home from New York City Comic Con that morning when three men got on the train. One of them—a man with “evil in his eyes”—stood close to him on an otherwise empty car and slashed him in the face. “I got up and said, ‘Yo, you just slashed me in my face,’” said Anthony Durden. “And he was laughing. He smirked and said, ‘Yeah.’”
WNBC news report (Beckford, 2017)
Halloween is fast approaching. On that day, we embrace our fears en masse, assured that beneath the frightening disguises that we come across lie nothing that can harm us, that all evil projected is defanged and declawed.
But with the memory and pain of the recent mass shooting still fresh, some among us have wondered: Can evil reside inside an ordinary looking human being? A person can harm others, yes, but can a human being be evil, can his skin mask an inner evil?
Years ago, I tried to read “The Silence of the Lambs” (Harris, 1988), and though I gave up fairly early on, one conversation on evil has remained vivid for me since then. In that conversation, Dr. Lecter addresses Officer Starling thus:
“You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism….You’ve got everybody in moral dignity pants—nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Can you stand to say I’m evil?” Starling replies that his being “destructive” is the same as being evil. When Lecter argues that storms too are destructive, Starling responds that the difference is that he has been “deliberate.”
So, like the above conversation—perhaps less dramatically—the rest of this article will examine the definitions of evil. If we are to entertain the idea that people can be evil, we might as well know what we mean by that. We have all heard the term used by politicians, philosophers, theologians…and lay people. However, here, I will address specifically those definitions advanced by psychologists.
Berkowitz (1999), a psychologist, having examined psychological, anthropological, and philosophical literature, concludes that an evil person is one whose objective gains are significantly outweighed by the magnitude of injury and damage she has caused, one who had full responsibility for the actions committed, and one who clearly and intentionally violated moral norms.
But is immorality important to the definition of evil? Many people, it turns out, associate the concept of evil not with immorality but with “precategorical” and “preverbal” experiences of “impending doom” (Alford, 1997). In other words, for them, the intensity of the feelings of dread dissolve “normal distinctions between subject and object, inner and outer,” and since morality would require categorical thought (making distinctions between ourselves and others), the question of morality does not enter into their definition.
What about intentionality? Not according to Staub (1989), who downplays the role of “conscious intentions,” since “psychological distortions tend to hide even from the perpetrators themselves their true intentions.” Staub defines evil as any action that results in certain consequences, consequences that include the obvious serious injury and death but also circumstances that “destroy and diminish people’s dignity, happiness, and capacity to fulfill basic material needs.”
Baumeister (1997), however, believes that knowing the intention is key; in his view, evil has two core aspects: “intentional interpersonal harm” and the “violation of the friendly, orderly, comprehensible world.” Baumeister also underlines the subjective nature of the concept by noting that evil is often referenced not by the perpetrator but by the victim.
While reading Baumeister’s views on evil, I thought of a book entitled “Shattered Assumptions” (1992), a book not on evil but trauma. Janoff-Bulman, the book’s author, notes that during trauma, our “assumptive world” shatters and we question our core beliefs: That we are worthy, that people are benevolent, and that our world makes sense.
In other words, I wondered if, in keeping with Baumeister’s definition of evil as relational harm that violates one’s sense of the world as a good and intelligible place (1997), evil can also be defined as that which traumatizes a human being. Or, to extend the definition, that which traumatizes a nation. Because why should we consider evil at all as explanation, when in our modern world we routinely explain the unexplainable using sciences.? So perhaps we resort to talk of evil when we reach our limits; not our scientific limits but our emotional ones.
Baumeister (1997) whose views we considered above, notes that people think of evil in stereotypical ways, which he refers to as “the myth of pure evil”: for instance, people conceptualize evil as “other, the enemy, the outsider, the out-group,” as one who is born and always remains evil and one who commits irrational and gratuitous acts—actions driven by the pleasure of inflicting harm on victims who are “innocent and good.”
It is easy to see that this myth plays a part in how Don Turner, the president of the Nevada Firearms Coalition, responds to Mary Louise Kelly of NPR, during an interview following the mass shooting in Las Vegas:
Putting more new laws on the books is not going to stop it. This has been a conundrum humans have fought with since Cain and Abel. You cannot legislate compliance with evil. People are going to be evil. They’re going to do evil acts for one reason or another, and there’s not any laws in the world would stop them. If we had a total ban on guns, they would’ve used a semitruck or a bomb (Winship, 2017).
In his book, entitled “Abuse of Evil,” Bernstein, a philosopher, notes that “traditionally, the discourse of evil in our religious, philosophical and literary traditions has been intended to provoke thinking,” but that at present it is being used “as a political tool to obscure complex issues, to block genuine thinking, and to stiﬂe…debate” (2005).
Bernstein (2005) warns against thinking in absolutes, and the confusing of “subjective moral certitude” with “objective moral certainty.” He calls for skepticism towards “uncritical rigid dichotomy between the forces of evil and the forces of good.”
But that politicians can successfully use the concept of evil to distort issues implies that many Americans already believe in this concept. Not surprisingly then, according to an October 2017 survey of 1,000 American adults, “Americans strongly agree that there is evil in this world” (Rasmussen Reports 2017).
Good and Evil
Specifically, more than 80% “believe in good and evil,” including “90% of Republicans” and “75% of Democrats.” Only 20%, however, believe that evil is born; 50% believe it is made (by the society), and 30% can not decide (Baris, 2017).
“Prosecutors Say Chelsea Bombing Suspect Had ‘Evil in His Heart,’” reads a recent headline (Wilson, 2017). On the same day but in another article, a movie executive commenting on Harvey Weinstein claims that Weinstein was “evil on every front” (Feinberg, 2017). References to evil have become quite common. What do these people mean, and do they mean the same thing?
I hope to have given you a review of the psychological views on evil, and also to have reminded you that these notions need to be examined more closely. Because if we intend to use the word evil (as opposed to say, immoral, harmful, traumatizing, etc) to communicate something specific, we better be clear on what that is or else we are only contributing to mass confusion.
Unless we are celebrating Halloween…Because on that day, as long as we are safe and enjoy ourselves, let us be misunderstood as we look evil and think evil and speak evil.
Alford, C. F. (1997). The political psychology of evil. Political Psychology, 18, 1-17.
Baris, R. (2017, October 10). Poll: most Americans believe in good and evil. People’s Pundit Daily. Retrieved from www.peoplespunditdaily.com
Baumeister, R. F. (1997). Evil: Inside human violence and cruelty. New York: Freeman.
Beckford, C. (2017, October 10). ‘He had evil in his eyes:’ Victim recounts subway slashing as police probe 2nd attack. WNBC. Retrieved from www.nbcnewyork.com
Berkowitz, L. (1999). Evil is more than banal: Situationism and the concept of evil. Personality and social psychology review, 3(3), 246-253.
Bernstein, R. J. (2005). Abuse of evil: The corruption of politics and religion since 9/11. Cambridge: Polity.
Borchers, C. & Scott E. (2017, October 2). ‘An act of pure evil’: Trump’s remarks on the Las Vegas mass shooting, annotated. The Washington Post. Retrieved from www.washingtonpost.com
Feinberg, S. (2017, October 12). Former academy president on Harvey Weinstein: “Kick him out? He’s already out.” The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved from www.hollywoodreporter.com
Harris, T. (1988). The Silence of the Lambs. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Janoff-Bulman, R. (1992). Shattered assumptions: toward a new psychology of trauma. New York: The Free Press.
Rasmussen Reports (2017, October 10). Most recognize evil but question if some are born that way. Retrieved from www.rasmussenreports.com
Staub, E. (1989). The roots of evil: The origin of genocide and other group violence. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
White, J. B. (2017, September 30). Evangelical leaders urge Donald Trump to condemn ‘alt-right’ as ‘racist’ and ‘evil.’ The Independent. Retrieved from www.independent.co.uk
Wilson, M. (2017, October 12). Prosecutors say Chelsea bombing suspect had ‘evil in his heart.’ The New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com
Winship, M. (2017, October 10). The Evil that guns do. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from www.huffingtonpost.com
Arash Emamzadeh has an academic background in biology and psychology. He holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of British Columbia, in Canada, and has also done graduate work in clinical psychology and neuropsychology. Arash has a wide range of intellectual and artistic interests; he maintains a poetry blog here.