Philosophy Weekend: Does Ultimate Evil Exist?

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I've noticed something strange when talking to friends and relatives and neighbors about politics, or about the future of the world. Many people seem to believe that ultimate evil is a real and powerful force in our lives today. They believe that this evil threatens our families, our society and our nation, and they see it as our responsibility to prepare to fight this evil to the death.

Evil, according to this notion, is an eternal force, absolute and self-sufficient. It is beyond reason or negotiation; it can only be defeated for a generation, after which it will rise again, ready for another battle. We train ourselves for this recurring combat by consuming pop-culture representations of the enemy we must eventually fight: Darth Vader, Voldemort, the White Witch. These mythical creatures are widely understood to have direct correspondents in international history and politics: imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, Red China, Soviet Russia, Al Qaeda, Iraq, Iran.

I have never believed in the existence of ultimate evil, and I suppose this helps explain why I disagree so often with people I talk to about current politics. I was recently struck by the coincidence of two people I was talking with in two separate conversations -- both of them progressive liberals, smart and well-informed -- pointedly declaring to me that they are not pacifists. This is apparently a badge of honor for both of them, or perhaps it's more precisely an insignia of their membership in the army of good vs. evil. When the dark lord shows his face, I will be ready to fight. An awareness of quasi-mythical evil in the dark corners of the world also seems, unfortunately, to be present in nearly every American politician's foreign policy platform.

It must be the philosopher's job today to examine this kind of groupthink critically, and to help us reach a level of understanding that is less childish, less destructive, less obviously cartoonish. This is more vital than ever today, since modern weaponry has made the stakes for war and peace so high, and since cross-cultural paranoia appears to be currently at a hysterical peak.

Does any scientific or psychological model for "ultimate complete evil" exist? I don't think so, though there are certainly many ancient religious (the Bible, the Koran) and literary (Dante, Shakespeare) models for it. It's hard to imagine the belief in ultimate evil passing any examination on scientific grounds, though, because the model is likely to stumble over questions like these:

  • How does a person get infected with evil? Are they born with it, or is it the result of some experience that makes them evil?
  • Do evil people know they are evil?
  • Can evil people transmit their evil to others, and if so, do these others also become evil?
  • Is it possible for most or all individuals in a large crowd, or a society, or a nation, to be evil together? Do these crowds or societies or nations know that they are evil?

There is an alternative to the doctrine of real and ultimate evil, and in fact this alternative is a pillar of the philosophy of pacifism. According to this worldview, acts of horrible evil can be traced not back to original sin but to original mistakes. Evil, according to this worldview, may become real, but it is never inevitable, and it is never incurable.

Recent world history provides a lot of evidence for the theory of evil as "original mistake", since every act of war or genocide can be traced back to an earlier act that motivated it. Hitler's World War II can be traced back to World War I, which can be traced back to the Franco-Prussian War and the Napoleonic Wars. Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor can be traced back to Commodore Perry's gunboat diplomacy in Tokyo Bay. Strife in Africa maps back to the tragic dregs of European colonization. Iran's hatred for the United States of America clearly originated with the 1953 overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh.

These historical explanations do not excuse the horrors that followed, but they do provide an answer for the future: perhaps our best chance to end the cycle of war and violence in the world can be found not in greater military preparedeness and action, but in greater global understanding. We don't need to master the cycle of violence, but rather we need to end it.

Much of what I say here appears to me to be obvious, and is in fact part of Pacifism 101. But it's a striking fact that many people see it differently than I do. Several of my recent friendly conversations and debates about politics have made me realize how deeply the question of the nature of evil underlies everything else we believe about foreign policy, about history, about our options for the future.

If you truly consider human evil to be an eternal and incurable condition that is currently present in the world, then this belief will inevitably become the basis of your entire ethical philosophy, and of your practical political positions as well. The nature of evil is therefore a question of gigantic importance. It's worth thinking twice about.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: What Is Empathy?. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: What Does Ron Paul Represent?.
31 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Does Ultimate Evil Exist?"

by Claudia on

Levi, I think evil exists, not just today, but always has, since the birth of human civilization. It's a psychological more so than a metaphysical category. In my opinion, it's only relevant as applied to beings that are capable of having a conscience but lack it. Evil is the absence of empathy and conscience in human beings. But when such conscienceless, power-hungry individuals gain power, their evil spreads like a virus even to those capable of empathy and remorse. That's when, as during the Holocaust, evil threatens to destroy humanity itself: not only the humanity of those killed or sacrificed for the sake of power, but also that of those who go along with such evil designs.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for the reply, Claudia. Having read some of your writings, especially about the nature of psychopathy, I'm not surprised to hear that you believe evil exists. But, if you don't mind my saying so, I find your formulation too simple to believe. You say "evil is the absence of empathy and conscience in human beings". But how is it possible for a human being to lack empathy and conscience? It's as unlikely as to lack lungs or a heart. These are basic elements of human consciousness. I think the average person feels more different kinds of empathy than he or she can even possibly count. So how would it be possible for a person to feel no empathy at all?

I need a more convincing explanation of what "evil" could possibly mean than this one.

by TKG on

What do you mean by qualifying this with "ultimate"? Are you saying you believe in or accept the concept of evil, perhaps within the context of acts that are evi, like murder, evil but you don't accept "ultimate evil?"

by mnaz on

there's no question, the "wiring goes wrong," individually at times. but sustained campaigns of organized plunder and violence-- well, that takes "religion" and brainwashing as well...

by Claudia on

Levi, I think that our different assumptions enable different attitudes towards evil, when we encounter it. On the one hand, my assumption, that human evil is founded in a lack of empathy (or a fundamental character deficiency, which psychopaths and other personality disordered individuals suffer from) enables those who encounter such individuals to protect themselves from them. In many cases, offering harmful people second chances in life gives them the opportunity to inflict even greater harm upon you and others.

On the other hand, your assumption, which states that all people are or could be, in the right social environment, capable of empathy enables us to look at those who commit evil acts as also capable of remorse and reform. It offers society some hope even for those who seem to be irredeemably evil, like serial murderers or those who participated in genocides.

Although we agree on so much intellectually, artistically and politically, we respectfully agree to disagree on this point. But to end my comment on a positive note, believe me, I'd rather live in a world where such hopes are well founded, or where evil has other explanations that aren't rooted in deep-seated character deficiencies (or lack of empathy and conscience) of about 1 to 4 percent of humanity. Your view allows, as you state, for more moral/psychological complexity and more optimism about human nature. Thanks for the debate and, above all, for your very thoughtful article on the subject of evil. Even when we have strong beliefs on a given subject, reading other well-argued points of view prevents us from becoming dogmatic about it.

If a hopelessly corrupt two party system that hordes all the wealth while letting the remaining 99% suffer isn't ultimate evil, then can we agree that it's pretty darn close to ultimate evil? Like you, Levi, I'm not especially fond of absolutes. On the other hand, any half-assed glimpse into the Beltway sees individuals who are bloodthirsty for power and influence that will never give a scrap to the working class or the middle class and who will willfully let our system fall into the mire if it means more for them (see the debt-ceiling showdown of months ago). We're talking about a level of selfishness deeply inspired by Ayn Rand and now practiced by the Eric Cantors and Tea Party Republicans of our world (see my recent Bat Segundo conversation with Tom Frank), where mythology and historical denial have replaced any pragmatic grasp on reality or any natural instinct for charity and empathy (oh, did you catch the buried optimism in my term of art?).

At what point does optimism, admittedly vital to human well-being, become as much of a blinder as overlooking certain facts about Reagan? Should we not stare some problems cold and hard in the face -- especially when we have reached a notable breaking point?

I'm wondering, Levi, if you would concede in some way that it is systems which create such evils rather than people. Because the good and the generosity that I experience on a daily business sure as hell don't involve politics or military conflicts. But when one is increasingly pressured to provide for one's family and there are scant options, selfish (but perhaps not ultimate) evil along the lines of what I've described begins to rear its cavalier head. One would have to be naive in the extreme to deny that such system-based cruelty doesn't exist within people. On the other hand, one would have to be a total cynic to discount goodness from the human equation. I'm with Claudia in believing that evil comes with a detachment of empathy. But are we severely underestimating the way that systems, especially grossly unfair ones like the present economy rooted on a vast disparity between rich and poor, can turn the mild-mannered into evildoers? If so, can we entirely blame such victims from committing "evil" actions?

by Levi Asher on

First, to TKG: yes, I can easily accept the idea (I have seen plenty of evidence) that people can act in evil ways towards each other. I'm contrasting this with the idea of ultimate evil -- the idea that certain people are essentially and completely evil, or beyond redemption.

Claudia: yes, I think we can respectfully agree to disagree here. My specific problem with the notion that a human being can simply lack empathy is that this notion treats the lack of empathy as a characteristic of the individual, whereas I think the lack of empathy must be a characteristic of the relationship. A person can lack empathy and act in ways that are "evil" with one person, but then feel empathy with and act more generously toward another person. In fact, don't we all do this?

Example: I think I am a charitable and generous person, but when a homeless person on the streets of New York City asks me for money, I no longer give it. This is the result of a lifetime of living in NY City and reaching into my pocket for a pointless handful of change over and over -- at some point, I began to resent the endless interruptions, and felt that I was helping nothing by handing out quarters and dimes. Now, if a homeless person approaches me for money, I react with a quick "nope, move on" signal that must, to the person, make me appear uncaring or even, perhaps, evil. This is not a characteristic of me so much as a characteristic of my practice with homeless people on the streets of NYC. In other cases, I am charitable. See what I mean? In general, I think humans have a natural tendency to imagine relational characteristics to be absolute characteristics. I doubt there's any person alive who hasn't been evil to (lack empathy with) somebody else at some point in their life.

To Ed: thanks for your comment. Yes, I know of several people who consider the USA's two party system to be the very definition of evil. There are certainly many societies around the world that see the USA as evil. (As in the case above, this is probably because the USA does not have an empathetic relationship with these societies, though in many cases the USA does have an "empathetic relationship" with the oil fields that lay under these societies lands.) I don't personally think the USA is evil, but I don't think any modern discussion of global notions of evil can ignore the fact that many sane and knowledgeable people around the world do see the USA as evil.

Ed, as for your statement about the system creating evil, rather than people being essentially evil, I absolutely agree. In fact maybe this is another way to say what I was saying above to Claudia, which is that the condition of evil, or lack of needed empathy, is not a characteristic of a person but rather a characteristic of a relationship.

by Claudia on

Levi, Ed, mnaz, TKG, and everyone, thanks for your thoughtful comments of this rich and interesting topic. As difficult as it is to contemplate and explain evil acts caused by human beings (just look at the debates it generates), it's even more difficult to explain tragedies and disasters that are NOT caused by human beings: particularly for believers. Why do innocent kids or good human beings suffer and die in natural disasters or due to serious illnesses, for example?The question of theodicy, or the existence of evil given an omnipotent and omniscient God has haunted theologians, philosophers, and writers for millenia. My favorite is still the discussion on this topic in Dostoievsky's classic, The Brothers Karamazov. Evil is something easy to identify and represent but difficult to come to terms with in any field, be it psychology or theology. Who has provided a compelling answer to the question of theodicy?

Hi Levi,

I don't follow your argument concerning the lack of empathy or conscience in an individual: you say "But how is it possible for a human being to lack empathy and conscience? It's as unlikely as to lack lungs or a heart." Levi, empathic response to human experience is not a muscle, it is a capacity or even a sensibility. (And, no, it doesn't reside or extend from the heart, which is a muscle.) Franz Brentano argued, cogently, for the actuality of a moral sense; a sense not less real, and not more infallible than the other senses we posess. He has yet to be proven wrong! To say that someone lacks empathy - and it is true of many - is more like saying they are color-blind, where the color is the moral quality of the action considered. Is ths impossible to conceive? Of course not! (You can't define your way out of this issue!)

But the problem of the nature of evil should not be confused with the problem of psychopathy or sociopathy. (Levi, even autistic individuals and highly functioning Ansberger syndrome victims testify to a complete lack of empathy --but this in no way asperses their moral character.) You "define" empathy and conscience as necessary and essential aspects of human consciousness with no more reason that the needs of your thesis. I think your philosophy needs some facts to ground it, to keep it from becoming merely a screed.

BTW, why is a resolute determination to fight back against aggression "groupthink"? While the opposite - whatever that is - is not? Can't people disagree, or is that "the original mistake"?

by Levi Asher on

Kevin, I love these questions, thanks. You are correct that I should try to back up my statements with facts or evidence, and I'll try to do so now.

1) Is it possible for a person to completely lack empathy?

A typical human being feels so many different kinds of empathy in so many different situations that it seems extremely far-fetched to suggest that a person might go through life feeling no empathy at all. Let's consider how many times a day a person will feel empathy of some kind. A person wakes up in the morning, greets their family members, and feels empathy with each one. Listening to the morning radio, they hear a report of a person who died in a car crash last night, and they feel empathy with that person, as well as with the person speaking on the radio. The cat needs to be fed, so they feel empathy with the cat. They go out to their car, wave to a neighbor (empathy), drive to the highway, pause at a stop sign to let a little old lady strolling with a walker cross the street (empathy), get mad at another driver who honks at the old lady (anger, a form of negative empathy), gets on the highway, gets stuck in traffic, feels angry at all the traffic (more negative empathy), smiles at somebody's funny bumper sticker (empathy), finally gets to work and says hello to five co-workers (empathy * 5). So, it's not even 9 am yet, and this person has already felt at least a dozen different kinds of empathy.

With such a preponderance of empathy, I just don't understand what it could possibly mean for a person to feel no empathy at all. I suppose it's possible to imagine empathy as a sense, like sight or sound, as Franz Brentano seems to suggest, and to imagine that certain people can just be born with an empathy defect like a sight defect or a hearing defect. However, I have never met a person who behaves in such a way as to indicate that they are unusual in this way. The great moral monsters of history -- Hitler, Mao, Stalin -- were all socially skilled, and each had many long-term personal relationships, so it's not possible to imagine that they were "empathy-blind". Rather than seeing empathy-blindness, it seems more realistic to imagine that some people's empathetic senses have become twisted or sadistic, or that some people have become so driven to achieve certain goals that they have learned to ignore their empathy for their victims. It's also obviously the case that, as our relationships progress over time, over feelings of empathy with other individuals in our lives change based on the changes in the relationship. But all of these are variations in how a person feels empathy, not an indication that there is a person who simply feels no empathy for anyone at all.

It could be remotely possible to say that autistic or Aspergers people might have an empathy defect. But, having met several people with both conditions, it seems rather to me that their empathy is sometimes different from normal empathy -- less consistent, more defensive -- but it certainly doesn't seem to me that they lack empathy entirely. My evidence for this comes simply from the people I have known in my own life, and I'd ask every person who reads this to think about the people they have known and see if they come up with a similar answer to mine or not.

Overall, I agree with Kevin that it is possible to reasonably believe in some kind of "empathy defect" among humans, even though I don't think the evidence for this is strong. Perhaps I'll have to devote a future Philosophy Weekend post (or several) to the question of whether or not it is possible for a person to have a total lack of empathy. For now, I'll leave it to each reader to make their own decision, based on the evidence they see in their own lives -- that's the best I can do today. Fascinating question, anyway.

Kevin, as to your second question -- yes, I suppose I used the pejorative term "groupthink" gratuitously. Fair point.

Levi, you are generalizing from your own singular, though variegated, experience ("the preponderance") of empathy to a whole species. I could list ten thousand instances of green seen on any given day, but that would not discount the truth of the person who says "I can't see green."

My point is that empathy is a single capacity with many objects or occasions, and some people don't have it. This has been established in countless reports on the psychology of human predators. It is not ideational: therefore, it is not a matter of 'mistaken' ideas or applications. There is no category error: in relation to X, they don't feel anything. Some people are not moved by the suffering of others, because they don't "see" suffering. The empathic 'moment' fails. All the squirming and screaming and writhing means nothing to them, emotionally.

How does this relate to the presence or reality of evil? If someone truly lacks empathy and truly desires only his/her own ends (think Casey Anthony, for example), that person may well act in a way we would describe as Evil, if it pays no regard to the unacknowledged interests of the victim. (Note, here, that evil is an adjective, not a substantive noun. It denotes a quality, not a force or a entity. It is probably even better understood if we take it (a la Brentano) as an adverb - the person acts (is perceived to act) evil-ly.) This lack of acknowledgment isn't a mistake: it is a disregard. A decision not to regard or consider the other's interests. Why? Because the perpetrstor doesn't 'feel any need' in him- or herself or recognize any need in the other. Not well: this scenario says naught about knowledge! Casey Anthony knew her child was dead, eventually, and she buried the body in the woods and went dancing. There is no lack of knowledge here, just a lack of empathy (minimally) or compassion or love or human decency. All of these latter qualities pretty much depend on the presence of the first: a capacity for empathy.

BTW, her history of cuddles should make anyone think twice before assuming that all positive behavior towards another is motivated by empathy or concern. Even slave masters feed their slaves, though I doubt it is done out of compassion.

by Levi Asher on

Well, Kevin, I think Casey Anthony is a good example to discuss. I didn't follow her case closely, but I did catch enough of the facts to be amazed at her apparent lack of empathy with her own child.

But there are many possible explanations for the behavior of Casey Anthony. It could be that she is literally "empathy deficient" in some way. I know that psychological pathologists like Oliver Sacks have documented many freakish cases of unusual mental behavior caused by physical or biological conditions, so there's no reason to rule out the possibility that a person could be biologically "empathy deficient", though it does seem far-fetched.

But it could also be the case that Casey Anthony feels empathy but also suffers from other problems or traumas or biological deficiencies that disturb or disrupt the natural feeling of empathy. I will agree with you that we don't know which it is, and I will also agree with you that this is an important question. I'm going to try to find more case studies of people with apparent "empathy disorder" and see if I can find out more facts.

Regarding the overall point of my original post, though: even if some small number of people in the world suffer from a total lack of empathy, it's hard for me to see this as a sufficient explanation for the existence of evil. I've been writing about evil as it's manifested in politics, history, genocide, war -- and I've been focusing not just on the behavior of individuals but also on the behavior of crowds. Do you really think that there is a direct relationship between a biological condition of "empathy deficiency" and tendencies to commit acts of evil, as they are manifested in global politics and history? I just find this formulation too simplistic and reductive. It doesn't capture the broad variety of human motivations. And I'm also unpersuaded that this condition of "empathy deficiency" can actually exist at all -- though I do agree that it's possible that it does.

Levi, Sacks is an excellent source and a very generous and 'sympathetic' clinician. He is also a careful chronicler of such things. Read his book 'confessions of an anthropologist from mars' -- it chronicles the trials and triumph of a woman with severe Aspergers syndrome who admits to feeling no empathy at all with humans, but has been able to realize an 'analogous' strategy of willful, imaginative(?), non-emotional empathy with animals into a career as a reformer of slaughterhouse practices and, yes, a humanitarian! This type of clinical perspective puts the actual mental and emotional capacities involved in perspective.

Remember: it was David Hume who taught us that ideas (knowledge) alone can not/will not make us, or lead us to, do anything. We have to care about the results of any action taken. Compassionate activity requires a ground of motive, not just a good reason. (Perhaps what we need is a phenomenological essay on the good, in good reason!)

http://hare.org/

Robert D. Hare is the man to study when it comes to psychopathology as far as i can tell.

while not everyone is born with the capacity of the emotions of conscience, my own suspicion is that it isn't that one either has such capacity in full or none at all, but rather that there's varying spectrums of types of each sort of such emotions and to varying degrees...

the evil we do ourselves is always the last to be looked at mayhap -the USSR as evil? one might ask what they thought of us back then in turn.

by Prince Ja Mu on

There's evil Ashman. I cast a spell and hope he visits you. Sometimes he comes in a bottle of Old Crow. Sometimes he changes bees into Zombies!!! Sometimes he starts race wars, disease, famine.

The devil thinks all the above are a good time. Fuck they might be. I don't know I'm not evol.

no joke he swirl out of the bottle, mon

by Claudia on

Levi, I don't know how much we will succeed in persuading you that irredeemably evil individuals exist, but at least this generated a very interesting debate. As you know, for the past four years I've been doing research on this subject, I've just published a nonfiction on this subject called "Dangerous Liaisons" and a novel called "The Seducer."

There's no question that you're right that about 96 percent of the population ARE capable of empathy, but don't always exercise it with everyone. That's why, as you state, certain individuals and individuals can bring out our good, compassionate side and others bring out the worst of us. However, about 4 percent of the population have no real good side. To John's suggestion of taking a look at Robert Hare ("Without Conscience"), I'd also add Martha Stout's "The Sociopath Next Door" and Hervey Cleckley's groundbreaking "The Mask of Sanity".

Psychopaths simulate having a conscience and caring about others whenever it suits their purposes. It's amazing how we can accept that some people have mental deficiencies (down syndrome, mental retardation) which are the result of genetics or an accident or some other cause. Nobody expects those individuals to develop normally. But it's more difficult to accept that some people are born with emotional deficiencies or personality disorders: essentially, shallow emotions which renders them incapable of true bonding with others and empathy. These people are psychopaths like Drew Peterson, Scott Peterson and others we see in the news.

Of course, not all of them commit violent crimes and not all of them are notorious or newsworthy. The vast majority don't. As for the question of whether a small percentage of the population can cause a lot of damage, I believe that the answer is yes, particularly when they achieve a lot of political or economic influence (like Hitler and Stalin, who were sociopathic, plus had other psychological issues as well, like clinical paranoia). But even non-influential or garden variety psychopaths touch many lives and cause a lot of damage. Evil is the best term I can think of to describe these individuals without heart and without conscience. I'm pasting below one of my articles on this subject. Even if it doesn't persuade you--which it probably won't--it may still contribute something to this interesting and lively debate.

http://psychopathyawareness.wordpress.com/2011/02/15/why-psychopathy-is-...

by mnaz on

what about hitler? jack the ripper? son of sam? ted bundy? the wiring goes wrong sometimes...

or, if you really want to mess with your head, what about organized violence in the name of nationalism (military)? or drone attacks which kill so-called "human shields" (?) things like that?

is it true that "evil" is a word derived from "devil" (?) a concept born from religious thought, or belief?

by Levi Asher on

So -- mnaz, Claudia, Kevin -- the consensus that seems to emerging from your various points of view is that evil is rooted in an actual, quantifiable, possibly congenital defect. This defect is manifested as an absence of empathy, similar to a blind person's absence of sight. When a person is utterly evil, that means something is "wrong with the wiring".

Well, I'm surprised and fascinated that the idea of a biological or congenital source of evil is so popular. Claudia is certainly right that I am not likely to ever agree with this. Again, it just seems way too simple. It does not capture the deep currents of human psychology as I have always seen them. While I do recognize that there are many mental illnesses rooted in physical conditions (as Oliver Sacks has documented), I have never heard of any strong evidence that evil behavior can be mapped to any congenital or biological defects. I also continue to feel strongly that, as John Farwell says, a person's tendency to do evil must be a matter of degree, rather than an absolute. However, I don't know how to prove this, and I may in fact be wrong.

So here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to spend some time reading the links a few of you have sent (thanks) ... and I'm going to write about this again.

by Claudia on

Levi, if you want to see plenty of proof of the evil of psychopaths, just take a look at the Crime Library. It's a Psychopath Hall of Fame. LOL. By the way, even if you change your position a tiny little bit to acknowledge that a small fraction of the population is irredeemably evil (i.e., that they're psychopathic either congenitally or by bad social influence, however they became that way), it would in no way take away from your pacifism and your other core ethical beliefs.

Pacifists can believe that psychopaths exist and that they're irredeemably evil yet that in engaging in war (which causes inevitable carnage to innocent people as well) or in supporting the death penalty we may be engaging in evil deeds as well. Many pacifists want to distinguish, morally speaking, between normal human beings who have a conscience and the acts, nature and behavior of those who lack it. So even if we manage to sway your starting premise about evil human beings--I know, the chances are slim to none--it wouldn't have any logical impact upon your other related beliefs.

by mnaz on

is this discussion like the "nature vs. nurture" debate? (which is probably not "winnable") (?) well, it's similar, at least.

personally i don't care for the word, because it is too easily "hijacked." i RARELY use the word, and when i do, i try to use it in the most straightforward way possible. as in describing the acts of psychopathic killers with no conscience nor empathy. even then, i prefer "psychopathic" to "evil."

what we really need to outgrow is the "evil other(s)" mindset-- "evil" hijacked politically and/or religiously-- the "evil empire," "evil homosexuals," "evil muslims," etc. etc.

world wars 1 and 2 were monumental setbacks to the species i.m.o., because they seemed to cement this idea of the monolithic evil other(s) in our collective psyche, making our populations ever-fearful and ripe for all manner of militaristic propaganda. and these wars precipitated an absurd, suicidal arms buildup.

anyway, my $0.02.

by Levi Asher on

I've just read the articles on psychopathy by Robert Hare, who is apparently a very well-regarded psychologist, and a few of these other links. I've learned a few things I didn't know. Mainly, as mnaz just wrote, it's clear that there's a lot of confusion regarding the word "psychopath". I had always taken the term to have a broad meaning similar to what it sounds like: a psychopath is a person who is psychotic with regard to interpersonal relationships. But it turns out that the official meaning of the term as used by psychologists is very different.

A psychopath, according to Robert Hare or the wikipedia page is a person who behaves according to a syndrome marked by low empathy to others, willingness to lie and deceive, lack of personal emotional intensity, arrogance and self-centeredness. This person, according to this definition, is not necessarily psychotic, and may not be at all dangerous or evil. And, as is very relevant to this discussion, this person does lack empathy towards others -- not completely, but to a matter of degree -- since this is part of the very definition of "psychopath".

The fact that I have been using the term "psychopath" in a less exact and technically incorrect way while others like Claudia have not helps explain why we have had trouble agreeing on some things in this discussion. I understand better and will be more careful with my choice of words in the future. However, I strongly recommend to the American Psychological Association, and to Claudia and to Robert Hare that the word "pyschopath" be retired and replaced with a new word that has less obvious resemblances to "psychotic" and "psycho killer". Like the words "retard", "moron" and "idiot" (which were also once technical terms, then retired) I think the broader understanding of the word has superseded the technical one in the popular imagination, and probably causes many misunderstandings. (How would it feel for a parent to be told "your child is a psychopath"? But according to this definition, it is a spectrum syndrome that has been recognized and must be accepted and treated).

Since absence of intense emotion appears to be one of the signal traits of the dictionary "psychopath", I would suggest "apath" as a possible replacement.

Thanks especially to Claudia for clearing this up -- and thanks, Claudia, for your point about pacifism. You are showing great empathy with my political beliefs. :)

by Claudia on

Levi, thanks for reading the links we offered. You're showing the open-mindedness I've come to expect from you and litkicks readers in general:). Yes, I do have empathy for your political beliefs! In fact, I'm tempted to write an article for litkicks outlining the Cleckley/Hare features of psychopathy precisely and then exploring what acknowledging this form of evil implies for other-regarding political beliefs like pacifism. You got me thinking... Claudia

by Ja Ma on

Evil has nothing to do with humans. It is a black force. That we label it shows how human we are.

Sometimes "evil" gets into people. Oil in the soup I guess.

A few rare ones choose it. Choose blackness over light.

Most of us aren't too concerned about the spirit world.

by Lynn Wlliams on

Thanks for your interesting philosophical article. I agree that we can't always see things in such shades of black and white. I always find myself thinking of people when they were cute little babies. Were they evil then? Assuming the answer to this question is "no" then what happened? Typically something in society made these people the way that they are. It is interesting to try to figure out or pinpoint that moment that the innocent baby turned into someone capable of doing harm.

hello Claudia,

Stout and Cleckley are new to me and i appreciate hearing about them.

i wrote quite a bit in reply to this and went far afield -easy to do given the topic -but i went too far and too esoteric. at least i didn't mention the inorganic beings *too* much -or DMT at all. ahem. i'm vastly tempted to can it all and say wow, great to make your acquaintance, but i'm not completely sure this all serves better unposted.

the brain and it's chemistry, functions, anatomy etc. is for me problematic as so much ends up there and i have only a layman's grasp (if even that). my understanding is that before anything ever hits the left or right brains (or are we still calling them hemispheres?) it first gets processed emotionally in the prefrontal cortex. 'lacking the emotions of conscience' would begin there i presume. i'd speculate that psychopathy isn't just divisible by degree of affliction but by degrees of effective coping as well -or conning if you will -and speculate further some do so with a strong left brain capacity or a strong right brain capacity or bits of both working well together. i can only speculate past any certain grasp of the subject i may think i have (thanks to the more informed) but even my grasp isn't real knowing. there is for me just no getting around the subject though.

the medical industry itself now is so corporately politicized and corrupted that to formally and publicly research psychopathy seems to me an almost brave endeavor in the face of controversy. (the new DSM comes when? next year?) 'motivated reasoning' in the research never had such motivations aplenty before i'd speculate... i believe there's more work being done than is being kept put out front for public dissemination, like MRI measurability of empathic responsiveness for example. the underlying broad context of how the brain works at all necessarily gets short shrift in such focused topics as psychopathy by lay people, i think. your humble servent for one, yas. [*koff*]

is it even an illness nowadays? to some perhaps it may well be central to their culture. or ours. before i digress onto any meta-subject of the history of alcohol or patriarchy or dominator culture let me just take psychopathy's unavoidable presence and impact as a given, something present in the family of Man or even my own mayhap. they do have a demographic. personally i don't believe in interventions. in fiction i once toyed with the notion of dosing humanity at large with inoculation against psychopathy -the punchline of course being that then one is as bad as the patients by contravening Leary's commandments:
Thou shalt not alter the consciousness of thy fellow men.
Thou shalt not prevent thy fellow man from altering his or her own consciousness.

these people vote. and speak by their actions. is money speech? literally speaking (no pun intended), no. of course not. what would the voice of power be? oral? less -power itself. in whatever form. i believe to directly articulate their hearts is their desire as well as ever. modern media's given them more proof against repression than cause for it, i think. progressives were always the bane of their existence if not their prey...

degrees... evil's intentions are it's own, sans any measure. i believe it's as elusive as an idea or a meme and has it's own inorganic spirit, the power head. psychopathics may be the most susceptible by great degree. they may well have as much right to the sovereignty of their minds and the corroborated actuality of their kind socially and politically, but let us perhaps consider evil aside as something loose on it's own preying upon us all. let us consider aggression's history as two-sided; Sun Tzu Vs. Machiavelli, or Conflict itself conflicted over modernity, sophistication and such as applied to a raw will to power. there may well be those psychopaths whom wince at blunt admissions to the will to power by those in power and not merely for insult to dishonesty and disingenuity's twin sakes but for the tactical error of it. i suggest we encourage such error, let them 'come out' so to speak, and rather face the evil served than the servents themselves exclusively as afflicted ones. not all are born psychopaths, some are made (so to speak). consider, for example, the weird possibility that W is the 'good' Bush, relatively speaking. degrees...

Jeb Bush:
"The truth is useless. You have to understand this right now. You
can't deposit the truth in a bank. You can't buy groceries with the
truth. You can't pay rent with the truth. The truth is a useless
commodity that will hang around your neck like an albatross all the
way to the homeless shelter. And if you think that the million or so
people in this country that are really interested in the truth about
their government can support people who would tell them the truth, you
got another thing coming. Because the million or so people in this
country that are truly interested in the truth don't have any money."

what is Evil? the uncontested contest against the realization of anything that may threaten to deny it domination. an unminded central nervous system as base as any limbic dinosaur -or rather 'minded' by an overtly nullified physical head. not necessarily a leftover caveman spirit but a leftover cause, given spirit and flight in the wave of civilization and modernity's causes for acquisition of sugar, chocolate, coffee, tobacco, and leaving such in it's own wake along with it's alcohol. pure predation, extraction and ultimately self-digestion -oil -habitibility at all, etc... it's as if mindfulness was the 'evil' to it. JFK got killed for his grown independence of mind... MLK tam bien, and Jesus too if i may say so.

i think we will have better luck in the future dealing with evil than psychopathy as long as evil culturally protects it. psychopathy is deeply woven in, sure, but once it is more clearly seen as exploited by a greater paradigm it'll rebel from subjugation and remain loyal to it's self-interest than impotently submit further. if evil is a proactive philosophy of a sort where psychopathy is not and so the greater of the two, let us wonder what we share in the characteristics of our own philosophy and instead of our own will to power seek empowerment of each's will. (rule #1: check one's own attitude first.) evil cannot be as loved as a psychopath might be, and being loving is more important than being right. to us. or else what we am us anyhu?

-- whew --

honestly, my bottom line here really would involve a question to the brain researchers regarding how is dmt involved in our brain functions and does it (or it's malfunctioning) factor into psychopathy... then i'd ask, regarding proactive intents, where does sadism begin?

by Bill_Ectric on

I think there is a "lifeboat effect" in which people mistakenly believe that in order to survive, they have to eliminate someone else, "throw them out of the lifeboat." Many political leaders want us to feel that way. I tend to think of evil as an adjective or adverb, as suggested by Kevin MacLellan.

by Bill_Ectric on

John Farwell's comments are very much in line with my understanding of the subject.

by Flobits on

The existence of absolute evil has always been a vivid debate. As well as the existence of absolute good.
I personally think of a coexistence of the two entities. This ensures the equilibrium in the universe, it acts and propagates like a wave. It has minima and maxima, depending on the form it takes. And there's nothing absolute in it.
At the end of the day, the good God and the cruel Satan might well be brothers :)

by Frederick on

I have been trying to sort out the phenomenon of the lack of empathy and its association with acts of evil. It seems to me, evil is a metaphysical concept while lack of empathy is a congenital and/or genetic deficiency. What is called "evil" is in fact correlating the outcome of violent actions perpetrated by people who often appear lacking in empathy. Now then not all aempathetic people commit violent acts. However, it often appears that those committing violent acts share this aempathetic characteristic.
[See for example, "Genocidal Doctors" by JH Baron:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1297441/]

My hypothesis is that the personality that promotes or facilitates violent acts we call evil, is a combination of several different elements that produces a unique personality, driven to produce violence on a large scale. Albeit dangerous to normal society, it may not be useful for understanding to categorize this as a psychopathologic personality. When congenital absence of empathy combines with narcissism, high intelligence, self discipline, ambition, and charisma in a small sub-group of humans, under a specific set of social and political circumstances these individuals can influence others to produce serial acts of violence whose outcome we call evil.

by Alex on

Philosophy is the artful analysis of human ideas, ideals, and thoughts on various subjects, and is therefore, subjective. Any philosophical tenet or theory is subject to the prejudices formed by the internal and external experiences of the theorist. Therefore, Absolute Evil exists on a malleable and subjective social and theoretical continuum; which in other words, is comparable to a poisonous river that flows though many different nations and lands for many years. In this hypothetical situation, this river could be described by the historians of the varied cultures in different terms, while still being poisonous, and thus inflicting suffering and pain on each of the respective cultures' populations--ruining their way of life.

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