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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At 6:22 AM, Blogger Mike said...

Thank you Derek for your blog and for your masterpiece, Disarming Scripture, which answers more than just the problem of violence in the Bible but presents a remarkable hermeneutic backed by solid theology for understanding many other aspects of the Bible.

The question that remains for me even after reading this and the previous blog post is about why evil exists in the first place. Free will is often given as an argument, but I struggle with why an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God is not able or willing to create a world with free will but in which the worst extremes that we see do not happen or are prevented. Another argument given is Satan, but God created Satan and knew precisely what he would do, so that doesn't work for me either. The only thing I can think of that may provide a solution is that in the same way that Jesus gave up omniscience, omnipotence etc. to live life as a human, that God the Father is choosing to self limit as well.

Do you have any thoughts on the problem of evil and related issues of natural disasters and animal suffering and could you point me to any material eg. good books on these issues?

Thanks again for your outstanding book.

At 9:58 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


I agree that all the explanations of why an all-powerful and loving God would create a world with evil in it all seem to ring hollow. So I need to conclude that it is not good, not part of the plan, but rather something that is broken. On a basic level the "problem of evil" comes down to two conflicting factors: If evil exists, either God is not love or God is not sovereign. I have experienced God's love, so I believe in that. God's sovereignty is therefore what I question. I wish God would prevent bad things from happening, but it seems to me that this is simply not what God does. As hard as that is for me to take, that's what I observe.

So the question becomes, if God does not prevent the bad things from happening, how do we keep hold of love and hope and trust in this world? What does it look like to pray for someone's health or their safety? These are the things I struggle to work out on my knees. At the moment I don't have a clean answer. Maybe I never will. I still pray for loved ones who are sick, and pray that they will be better. I guess that even if it is naieve as far as the expectation, it is an honest expression of my own hopes and desires for them.

My friend Brad Jersak says that when we do that we are opening ourselves up for love to do its work, we are "consenting" to love. The hope is that somehow that does something in the world that not only affects me, but also the one I am praying for... but I don't pretend to understand how that works. I just know I need to pray for them, and so I do.

Something that has helped me a lot in dealing with the pain of suffering evil is the idea that God suffers with us. You can read an essay I wrote on that here: Human Suffering
and the Silence of God

At 12:26 PM, Blogger Mike said...

Hi Derek,

Thank you for your reply. The link didn't work for me but I googled the title and found your essay.

As I have been reading chronologically through the Old Testament and have been horrified at the violence throughout, "Disarming Scripture" helped me tremendously in resolving one of two major issues challenging my faith - how to deal with this apparently divinely commanded bloodshed in the Holy Book. I am very grateful for the profound insights captured in your book.

The second issue is this "problem of evil". You bring up Job and his intense suffering and struggles and as I read that story a while back, I did somehow feel that it contained the answer to the problem of evil even if it is not the clean answer I would like. Maybe this is what faith really is - trusting God even without having a solution to why evil exists - which if I'm not mistaken is broadly what your essay points towards, suggesting that this trust be based on God suffering with us and in particular God's self sacrifice on the cross.

You lean towards questioning God's sovereignty rather than his love. Have you delved into the various types of open theism and/or essential kenosis (Thomas Oord) and if so what do you think of these approaches? Do they hold water or just push the problem somewhere else in your opinion?

Funnily enough the next book on my reading list is Brad Jersak's "A More Christlike God". If you have any recommendations for books I could read after that, I would be grateful.

At 8:40 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

I read open theism as well as Oord many years ago, and thought they had lots of really good points. I didn't really read any of it in the context of the problem of evil, so I can't really comment on that though. Like you said, my general approach is that there is not any compelling *explanation* of the origin and existence of evil, and the best we can say is "evil sucks, it seems really big, but somehow we need to trust that God is working to make things right, and we need to join God in this work and put our hope in this, even if that hope seems crazy" we are pointed to that conclusion by the cross and Resurrection which is itself a pretty crazy (good) narrative of good over coming death by the weakness of love.

At 1:09 AM, Blogger Mike said...

Hi Derek,

Thank you for you thoughtful response. I would like to suggest that if one day you are looking for a new hard topic to address in a book, that you consider the problem of evil.

In the meantime, I will read Oord's "Uncontrolling Love of God" to see his take on the issue as he claims to have a solution.

I think you are the kind of theologian and writer who can find a new angle on this challenging topic building and improving on all the thoughts that have gone into it over the years and bringing new ideas to the table.

At 1:08 PM, Blogger Mike said...

Hi Derek. There's been a long break in your blog posts so just checking all is well with you.

At 11:26 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks Mike, that's considerate of you to ask. Yes all is well. Lot's of big changes going on with personal life now, so that has taken all my time. Maslov's hierarchy of needs stuff.

At 8:36 AM, Blogger Bobbisox78 said...

Dear Mr. Flood,
I have just begun your book 'Disarming Scripture'. At this point in time I have one Chapter 3, page 47, I would like to know why you use the term "lynching" when Stephen was, as far as I have known, "stoned".
Am glad to know all is well as I too noticed there was a pause in your blog.
Thank you.

At 9:08 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

The word lynching refers to killing a person by mob action without legal authority. The means of killing was originally hanging, but the word as it is used today is focused on the violent mob nature of the killing, rather than the means.

At 9:15 AM, Blogger Bobbisox78 said...

Ah, I see. Thank you! Greatly enjoying the book so far.


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