The Psychology of Evil, Part 2: Moral Development

Sunday, August 06, 2017

In part 1 of this series, I introduced psychologist Roy F. Baumeister's five roots of evil: predation, dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideology, specifically covering the last two, sadism, and ideology. In this second part, I will discuss the remaining roots.


This term simply refers to primitive drives of greed and lust. This is evil as a means to an end. I want what you have, so I take it by force. This is the most simplistic concept of crime, dating back to the Ten Commandments (thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not covet...). It is a concept of right and wrong that any child can understand, and indeed is what children learn in Kindergarten (don't hit, use your words...). In other words, the antidote to this type of harm is the natural process of developing socially--learning to share, cooperate, and so on. 

There is a connection here with social justice. For example the social dynamic in some U.S. inner cities is comparable to a failed state. When the police are not seen as serving and protecting, but are seen as a threat, the idea of "justice" is thus not entrusted to the state, and "gangs" take the role upon themselves. Since there is little hope of economic opportunity, people can feel that the normal social contract has failed them, and thus some feel compelled to take what they want by force. In other words, there is a correlation between individual justice and societal justice. The social contract which motivates a person to be social only makes sense if the society itself is indeed social. So if we want to see individual reform, an important part of this is working for societal reform. Impoverished areas all over the world lead to unstable and thus unsafe environments.


Dominance is likewise related to moral development (or the lack thereof) and has a lot to do with one's self-esteem. We often think of a bully as someone with inflated self-esteem rather than low self-esteem. However, really what we have in a bully or egotist is a profoundly fragile self-esteem. They thus feel compelled to put other people down to feel superior. This fragile self-esteem is easily threatened, and the bully responds with acts of dominance -- put downs to belittle you, shame you, and in some cases with acts of violence.

The antidote again is moral/social development. For example, as I explained in Disarming Scripture, restorative justice programs like RSVP work with society's most violent men — wife beaters, murderers, and gang bangers — helping them to become self-reflective, developing empathy, and finding healthy ways of managing their emotions. These violent men learn for the first time how to maintain their own dignity and respect without demeaning or harming others. The results are striking: The RSVP program boasts a staggering 80% reduction of violent recidivism.

Additionally, the RSVP program has seen a dramatic reduction of inmate violence as well, not only making society safer, but making the guards safer as well. Usually in prisons we of course do the opposite. We attempt to teach people not to dominate... by dominating them. This leads to violence in prisons (which endangers both inmates and guards), as well as to a high recidivism rate, leading to a "revolving-door" prison system. That's because our prison system is about punishment rather than reform. It dehumanizes people. Restorative justice programs like RSVP offer some light here, but ultimately the view of society needs to change. As long as we think prison needs to be a place where "criminals should suffer" we will support the perpetuation of this spiral of violence. That brings us to our next root cause of evil, revenge.


Revenge is about the cycle escalating retaliation. As humans, we naturally have an impulse for revenge. As Pinker says, "Revenge is an easily pushed button in everyone's brains." In other words, the drive for revenge is biological, related to our self-preservation. 

For me, understanding this biological aspect was tremendously helpful. It meant that when I felt the desire for revenge when I was wronged, this did not mean that I was not really following Jesus, or that I still had "sin living in me" as Paul puts it. This is simply a biological reaction. It is biologically programmed into all of us as a means of self-preservation. The question of moral development, and the question that has to do with me being faithful to the way of Jesus, is what I then do with that drive for retaliation. Am I driven by it, or do I master it? Can I rise above it and look for a better way of resolving conflict? In other words, it's not the impulse, but what I do with it. Simply put, a big part of maturing is learning impulse control.

Of all of these above roots of evil, revenge may be the hardest to overcome for us because it is still seen as a virtue in many societies today. We think of predation as criminal, and dominance as characterizing bullies and tyrants. But we often still equate revenge with justice--especially in American society. So while we generally see predation and dominance as bad, revenge is the one root of evil that is still seen as a virtue. This cultural value is reinforced constantly by nearly every action movie ever made where revenge is made synonymous with justice. It takes a lot of moral imagination to rise above that, because it means rising above the moral imagination of our contemporary society.

One powerful movement away from this is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was was set up in South Africa after the abolition of apartheid in 1994 to deal with the violence and human rights abuses that had occurred from all sides. One of the key elements of the TRC was uncompromising truth-telling. So often our legal system is focused on the opposite. If you admit guilt you are punished, so the accused never admit what they did. A typical condition of a legal settlement is that the corporation makes no admission of wrong-doing. Similarly, there is the constant spin of politicians and corporations doing "damage control" in an attempt to hide wrong-doing. But when we are wronged, we humans desperately need to hear an admission of this. We need this more than we need punishment or payment. If that's true on an individual level, it is even more so on a societal level. That's why governments and corporations fight so hard against it.

Another important principle of the TRC was the idea of incomplete (retributive) justice. There was retributive justice, but not in a way that was proportionate to the crimes committed. In one sense it was just impractical to jail everyone who took part in Apartheid. So in the interest of healing the nation they gave amnesty to most, only punishing the most severe crimes. That may seem shocking to many of us. It can feel like they "got away with it." But I'd suggest the place we need to look is not to our immediate emotional response, but the long term results. As imperfect as this justice may feel, the practical question is whether this allow us to go on as a society. Does this allow us to heal? Does it allow us to move towards repair? Does it lead us away from harm? As Amos Oz, referring to the seemingly never-ending Palestinian/Israeli conflict, puts it,

"Tragedies can be resolved in one of two ways: there is the Shakespearean resolution and there is the Chekhovian one. At the end of Shakespearean tragedy the stage is strewn with dead bodies and maybe a sense of justice hovering high above. A Chekhov tragedy, on the other hand, ends with everybody disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken, disappointed, absolutely shattered, but still alive. I want a Chekhovian resolution, not a Shakespearean one."

Commenting on the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann, Hannah Arendt coined the now famous idea of the "banality of evil." Evil is boring and stupid. She applied this to one of the key figures of the Holocaust, and while many have taken issue with her assessment (there certainly were aspects of the holocaust that were sadistic) what we can perhaps agree on is that evil's roots are found in very basic characteristics that all of us are susceptible to. As Solzhenitsyn so powerfully said in The Gulag Archipelago, "the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."

The three roots of evil we have explored here, predation, dominance, revenge all have in common a connection to basic human social development. In other words, the antidote to all of these evils is helping people to mature socially. As discussed in part 1, sadism is not actually a root, but rather an outgrowth of evil. This leaves us with the fourth root of evil, (authoritarian) ideology, which is a social framework that endorses harm as good. In other words, (authoritarian) ideology is a morally and socially underdeveloped view of the world which seeks to paint predation, dominance and revenge as good and admirable. We instead need to first recognize that all of us can easily fall prey to these egotistical and immature impulses -- we are not immune.  Second, having embraced a morally and socially mature view of the world, we need to seek growth both as individuals and as a society together, seeking to grow towards helping rather than harming, towards repair rather than revenge.

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