The Psychology of Evil, Part 1: The Myth of Pure Evil

Friday, July 28, 2017

Hannibal Lecter, Freddie Krueger, Dracula, Darth Vader, Cruella de Vil. We are all familiar with the myth of pure evil in Hollywood movies. It's a myth both because it serves as a literary device for the stories that shape how we see our world, and also because it is not true. It represents a naive cartoon understanding of what evil actually is.

Don't get me wrong, evil is real. People do really horrible, unspeakable, awful things to other people. If we can understand what leads a person to do that, then we can also discover how to move in the opposite direction, how we can grow and develop morally and socially--collectively and individually--towards being move loving, more just.

One of the key tenets of the myth of pure evil is other-izing, de-humanizing. When we refer to a person as a "monster" it is implied that they do not need to be treated as human. That allows us to treat them inhumanly, and then we ourselves commit evil actions, while thinking that we had no other choice, and perhaps telling ourselves that what we are doing is good and just. So we see our enemies as monsters and do horrible things to them, and they see us do that and think we are monsters, and thus feel justified in doing horrible things to us.

The problem with this cartoon depiction of evil is that it does not help us to break out of these cycles, and in fact contributes to keeping us locked in them. It's a fairy-tale world where we are the good guys and they are the bad guys. That's the opposite of being introspective and self-aware. What I hope to do instead is take a realistic and deep look at the reality of human evil that is a part of all of us, in the hopes of finding how we can move towards being good in a realistic and deep way.

Based on the work of psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature identifies five roots of evil: predation, dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideology. In the first part of this series I will discuss the last two of these, sadism and ideology. When you think of ideology, think Isis. When you think sadism, think Charles Manson. Hollywood and the news media are obsessed with these stories of terrorists and psychopaths. I suspect they do this because it reflects our own obsession. These are the things of our real life nightmares. This is the kind of evil that leaves us baffled, perplexed and horrified. The problem is that the media tells us this story with very little reflection or insight because it’s an easy headline to write. “If it bleeds it leads” they say. This stokes our fear, rather than helping us to gain insight.

Let's begin with taking a look at sadism. Despite its frequent depiction in movie villains, sadism—taking pleasure in hurting and killing others--is actually quite rare. Baumeister explains that sadism is something that one develops into, much like drug addition. Studies have found that, of those actively engaged in violence, only around 5% become sadists. What keeps 95% of people from sadism, Baumeister says, is our sense of guilt.

Whether that sense of guilt is in-built, the product of culture, or a mix of both is not entirely clear. What we do know is that, as mentioned above, only a very small percentage of those participating in violence come to enjoy it. We also know that in the past it was common for people to do sadistic things as a culture. One example is the torture of animals for entertainment. Pinker gives several accounts of how animals, dogs and cats in particular, were brutally tortured as a means of public entertainment in Medieval times. This might indicate that where cultural taboos are absent, more people can develop sadistic tendencies unhindered by guilt.

The idea of someone taking pleasure in hurting others seems to represent what our cliché of pure evil looks like. Think of the Disney villain with his classic mwa-ha-ha-ha! maniacal laugh, and we have the cartoon version of sadism. The “thriller” movie version is only slightly more complex, sometimes it is even less complex. As mentioned previously, this cliché reflects our need to make sense of what seems "monstrous" to us. We watch these “monster movies” to try to process our fears. Unfortunately these movies typically re-enforce our ignorance. To be fair, many Disney movies (for example Zootopia) have actively moved away from that, addressing issues of racism and prejudice in a cartoon. I can’t say the same for action movies.

So what do we do with sadism? First we need to realize that even when the media give us the impression that it’s everywhere – every second headline seems to be about this. We know that it is actually very very rare. It’s also important to note that Baumeister concludes that sadism is not so much a root cause of evil, but rather a byproduct, entering the picture after evil (that is, actively torturing and killing others) is already in progress. It is something that a very small percentage of people have the potential for, perhaps we might even see it as a perversion of sorts. But it is not a root cause, it is not where evil starts. So if we are seeking to find the root causes of evil, the root that it grows from, we will need to look further.

This brings us to the second category: Ideology. Ideology and its connection to violence is something I have discussed at length in Disarming Scripture, and often on this blog. I refer to this as the way of “unquestioning obedience” and have often warned of its potential to lead to violence. As Pascal says, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

One might say that ideology acts as an antidote to moral conscience. It gets us to turn off our brains and hearts, to shut off our compassion and common sense, thinking that we are doing this “for God.” This can lead parents to harm the children they love, thinking that they are doing God's will or being true to the Bible. It has, as a matter of history, led many pious and idealistic people to commit horrific atrocities in the name of their god or political ideology.

It’s easy to look at groups like Isis and think that we would never be like that. However, studies like the infamous Milgram experiment reveal that the average person is disturbingly capable of hurting others in order to conform to authority. Most of us just go with the crowd -- whether that's in the halls of our high school, at our fundamentalist church, or somewhere else where the stakes are higher.

That's why it's so important to learn to think for yourself, to question, and perhaps most of all, to develop moral courage. If we don’t stand up in the little things, will we stand up for the big things? It’s easy to spot the evil of fanatical extremist ideology in another religion or another nation, and I certainly do not want to deny that this truly is evil. The true test however is whether we are able to stand up to authoritarianism and demagoguery when it wraps itself in our flag and claims our religion.

People often ask me how to deal with things like Muslim extremism. I have focused mainly on Christianity because that is my own faith. So I begin with looking at myself and my own tribe. But the answer to how to deal with Muslim extremism is the same as how we deal with Christian extremism. Fundamentalism is the same is any religion. The antidote to this non-thinking non-empathetic ideology is of course to learn how to have a thinking faith, how to be introspective and reflective, how to grow in empathy and moral maturity.

In understanding ideology as one of the roots from which evil grows, the key takeaway is to recognize that it is therefore not something that we only find in those monstrous bad guys “over there.” It is something that we all, as humans, are susceptible to. Put in the right circumstances we might find ourselves doing the same thing that the people in the Milgram experiment found themselves doing. Denying this does not make us immune. On the contrary, to the extent that we are unreflected about this potential in us, we are all the more susceptible to it. Only by facing these tendencies in us head-on, and actively deciding to move in the opposite direction, can we counter it. In the case of ideology that means, among other things, actively questioning authority and learning to think morally for ourselves. We need to practice it in the little things—among our peers, at school or work or church—if we hope to have the civil courage to take a stand for bigger things.

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At 9:12 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

With regards to ideology, wouldn't an ideology whose core texts explicitly anathematize questioning and condemn compassion towards outsiders pose a somewhat different problem than an ideology whose core texts offer explicit support for questioning and universal compassion?

The ability to agree to the authority of a fundamentalist's scripture (or equivalent) and then use that very scripture to provide the antidote to their non-thinking, non-empathetic ideology seems critical to effective dialogue. If one is instead forced to confront a consistent scriptural rejection of the antidote, what sort of common ground can one hope to find?

On a similar note, while most ideologies have the potential to be used well or poorly depending on the moral maturity of their adherents, it seems reasonable to assume that the contents of an ideology's core text will have a significant impact on the proportion of each manner of use. Those who rely on their teachers to interpret might reject elements of their core texts without realizing it, but the texts themselves are always available to set them right (which can either be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the text in question!).

Referring to other people as monstrous is wrongheaded and counterproductive, of course, but I'm not convinced that the same is true of ideologies. Recognizing when people have fallen victim to thoroughly rotten ideologies seems like a critical part of understanding and dealing with ideology as a root of human evil.

At 6:15 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Great comment, it raises a lot of important questions!

When I really began to dig into how Jesus read Scripture, what I found is that he did not read it in a by-the-book-legal kind of way, but rather read it in a way that interpreted things in a sense of growing and developing understanding of what is good and loving. FWIW, this is also very much how reform Jews read the Old Testament today. It is however quite different from a fundamentalist way of interpreting the Bible, whether that is Jewish or Christian fundamentalism. One uses the text to say "this is the way it is, and that can never change, and too bad if that seems hurtful and absurd to apply it that way today, that's just the law" and another way that seeks to read the text and think what it would mean today in our particular circumstance, and more so what would be the way to interpret this that would lead us in growing in being loving and good and just and compassionate.

The take away of that is that two people can read the exact same text and come away with almost opposite ideologies. I am not an expert on the Koran like I am with the Bible, but I have heard from others that this is also the case with the Koran. It's not the book so much as it is how you read it.

So in regards to your statement, "The ability to agree to the authority of a fundamentalist's scripture (or equivalent) and then use that very scripture to provide the antidote to their non-thinking, non-empathetic ideology seems critical to effective dialogue."

What I did in Disarming Scripture is slightly different. I began with the assumption that Christians should adopt the way that Jesus interprets Scripture, and then presented that the way Jesus understood and applied Scripture was very different from the way non-thinking, non-empathetic way fundamentalists do. So the authority (i.e. trustworthiness) is not in the text itself, but in the the authority/trustworthiness of the interpreter (Jesus).

Behind that is the ideology (the beliefs/values) of Jesus that leads him to how he interprets Scripture. I totally agree that not all ideologies are created equal. It seems to me however that it is not so much a matter of one religion being better than another necessarily, but more the way a person approaches their religion. There are Christians who are amazingly good and loving, and there are Christians who are petty and cruel and heartless. The same is true of adherents of every faith, and the same is true of people without any religion.

I'm not sure ideology is quite the right word (the word is Pinker's and Baumeister's not mine). It seems to me that we all have ideologies, if by that we mean valued and beliefs. Perhaps a better term would be "authoritarian ideology."

At 10:23 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I guess my concern is that different texts can make it more or less difficult to change from a literal interpretation to the form of interpretation modeled by Jesus.

With regards to the Bible, it's entirely possible to validate the idea that one ought to take Jesus as one's interpretive lens for Scripture through proof texts. There's a Catholic Bishop on YouTube who's fond of using Revelation 5 -- in which the scroll representing Scripture can be opened by none apart from the Lamb -- in that way. Judeo-Christian philosophy offers another option insofar as it elevates human reason and its fruit sufficiently to require us to merge what has been revealed through reason with what has been revealed through direct revelation. And, most importantly, the example of the early Church and the shadow cast by Paul's violently legalistic actions as Saul makes it much more difficult to argue in favor of legalistic interpretation using proof texts, because there are so many texts one could choose from to counter any attempt to do so.

In contrast, the Quran insists in plain text that the orders of Muhammad ought to be the lens through which it is interpreted -- Quran 33:36 ( says, "It is not for a believing man or a believing woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decided a matter, that they should [thereafter] have any choice about their affair. And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger has certainly strayed into clear error"; Quran 4:65-66 ( says, "But no, by your Lord, they will not [truly] believe until they make you, [O Muhammad], judge concerning that over which they dispute among themselves and then find within themselves no discomfort from what you have judged and submit in [full, willing] submission. And if We had decreed upon them, "Kill yourselves" or "Leave your homes," they would not have done it, except for a few of them. But if they had done what they were instructed, it would have been better for them and a firmer position [for them in faith]." As far as I'm aware, such authoritarian texts are not called into question by other texts. Presumably, this is why Mu'tazila, an Islamic philosophical position which held reason (rather than direct revelation) to be the final arbiter of right and wrong, was considered heretical rather than normative.

In other words, it's clearly possible to argue someone out of Christian fundamentalism and into a Jesus-centered interpretation on Biblical grounds. But what common ground can one find with a fundamentalist whose religion's core texts explicitly deny the validity of non-literal interpretations?

At 8:43 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

I understand your concern in theory, but I don't think it is actually the case in practice. Consider: there are progressive Christians, many of which who began as fundamentalists, who now read the Bible in a way that s values. There are also progressive Muslims, many of which who began as fundamentalists, who now read the Koran in a way that promotes progressive values.

You are aware of how this works specifically within your own faith. To understand how it works within other faiths you would simply need to speak with someone from that other faith who has gone through a similar transition, and hear their story.

I suspect that what you would find is that most people, including most Christians, do not change their minds because of being convinced by good arguments, rather they are convinced by life experience--convinced by relationships, by empathy, compassion, and so on. So although perhaps one might argue theoretically that Christianity has the better intellectual argument on its side, in the end that is not really what matters. I think you need to first have the conversion into love happen in your life. Then when one approaches their text through the lens of love, they can find love in it. Before that conversion into love, it is hidden from them.

I say "conversion" into love as if it is a dramatic single experience. However this is often a gradual process of life maturity--growing into love. Those who read as fundamentalists are basically at a low level of moral development, and thus see everything (including their sacred texts) in a shallow, legalistic, black and white way. As people grow, they learn to see everything (including their sacred texts) in a deeper and more complex way.

As a side note, it's interesting to me that those who are morally underdeveloped (meaning adults who are stuck at the moral development of an child) typically see them selves as the self-appointed guardians of morality, accusing others of "compromise." That the people who are the least morally developed see themselves as the champions of morality, and often do this loudly from their pulpits and media platforms, is painfully ironic. It is imperative that those of use who are morally mature do not let them get away with taking on this role for which they are clearly unqualified.

So I do think that there are ideologies--specifically immature ones that lack compassion-- that are bad. We need to help people grow out of those.

At 7:44 AM, Blogger Nita Steiner said...

Amen, amen, amen!

At 10:55 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you for reminding me of the critical role played by love. It's clarified a few things for me.

On the one hand, there's a sense in which God -- who is love -- is free to offer a lens of love to anyone He chooses, through which they might reinvent even the most difficult of texts.

On the other hand, it's reasonable to think that the way individuals would respond to such an offer will depend greatly on their existing values, the background radiation of their life, and the text's apparent attitude towards such reinterpretation. If any one of those three conditions are favorable (and the first two often are in our culture), the lens-of-love offer could be well-received... but it's hard to imagine someone who values unquestioning obedience who's raised in a culture that promotes unquestioning obedience reading a book that seems to demand unquestioning obedience and finding love there.

So I guess my real question is, how can you deal with authoritarian interpretations of sacred texts in cases where the values of the individual, the values of the culture, and the surface-level values of the text are all against you? What do you do with someone who doesn't just see any and all resistance to the plain text of their scripture as heresy but who has been trained to scorn the very relationships, empathy, and compassion that could result in a conversion into love?

With regards to the correlation between deficient moral development and the tendency to try to impose one's own brand of morality on others, I wonder if it might have something to do with the tendency of those who are emotionally underdeveloped to treat other people as extensions of themselves rather than as their own individual persons. It's certainly plausible that moral and emotional development could be linked, in any case.

At 11:50 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

"It's certainly plausible that moral and emotional development could be linked, in any case."

Yes, very much so.

"I wonder if it might have something to do with the tendency of those who are emotionally underdeveloped to treat other people as extensions of themselves rather than as their own individual persons."

Quite possibly. That's a good insight.

"What do you do with someone who ... has been trained to scorn the very relationships, empathy, and compassion that could result in a conversion into love?"

As my youth pastor used to tell us: You love the hell out of them. They won't be converted by an intellectual argument. What could turn them around however is experiencing grace and unconditional acceptance. Seeing your empathy and compassion and freedom can create a hunger in them.

It's important here to remember the usual order is first the heart, then the brain. First I need to experience love and grace, I need to taste and see that it is good. Then knowing that I am drawn to seek understanding. So I study and seek and in my case, I write theology. I have a real need to seek that understanding, a real need to dig through the Bible in order to do that. Perhaps you do too. But that real and good need is secondary. We don't begin there. We begin with first with experiencing, knowing, living. So the way to get the blind to see, to get the hard heart to open, is by showing them love.

At 8:58 AM, Blogger Peter said...

Derek, I agree that loving the hell out of them is a great strategy (probably the best), but let's not write off intellectual arguments. I've experienced tremendous spiritual growth from reading the well-reasoned thoughts (mostly blogs and books) of those more mature than I am. :)

At 10:03 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Yes, yes, I certainly agree with that. Heck, that's why I wanted to study theology: Because of how it has helped me to grow, I wanted to dig in more. Understanding stuff is very important. Didn't mean to discount the importance of that at all.

I relate to the idea of "faith seeking understanding." I begin with trust, and from that place of openness/faith/trust I seek to understand more deeply so that I can practice my faith better. So I still think that it begins with openness/trust, and while a person is closed and mistrustful they can't go forward, the next (and vital) step after openness/trust/faith is seeking understanding. Seeking understanding is a key part of discipleship -- putting one's faith into action. Hence your experience of it leading to spiritual grown, which I whole-hardheartedly agree with.


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