Good or Evil?

Are you dealing with a bad apple or do you have a bad barrel? Plus: Humans may be aggressive, but war is something much different.

"Evil" Exists, but Not as a Diagnosis

"Evil" is not in the DSM-IV.

James Bond has fascinated us for a half century as he fights villains who are the personification of evil. Blofeld, a supervillain, is ruthless in his attempts to dominate the world.  He seeks to destroy civilization through a deadly virus (“On her Majesty’s Secret Service”).  Blofeld is a master criminal who goes to great lengths to preserve anonymity by undergoing plastic surgery and appearing in different manners of dress.  Despite his constant stroking of a white Angora cat in “You Only Live Twice,” Blofeld has no redeeming features.

I have dealt with “villains,” so to speak, throughout my decades of clinical practice.  I have been asked whether I have found that evil people exist.  Although evil is not found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association, evil people do in fact inflict massive destruction in their wake and do precious little to benefit humanity.

Criminality exists along a continuum from petty crimes to mass murder.  I have interviewed people occupying different points on this hypothetical spectrum.  At the extreme end, there are individuals who think radically differently from people who are basically responsible. They see themselves as being like the hub of a wheel around which everything must revolve.  They are uncompromising -- determined to prevail in every situation, whether by deception, intimidation, or brute force.  They see the world as being like their own personal chess board with people and objects as pawns. (I have described many other features of such individuals in my blogs for “Psychology Today”.)

These individuals have only the most primitive concept of injury to others, e.g. leaving someone with broken bones lying in a pool of blood.  They have no concept of the ripple effect of injury to direct and indirect victims (like the proverbial stone hurled into a bond with unending ripples). They lack a concept of what a “victim” is.  In fact, when they are apprehended and held accountable, they regard themselves as victims.  One man told me, “I know those people missed their stuff” (speaking of his numerous break and entry crimes), but I’m the one who has to do the time.  Lee Boyd Malvo, the younger of the D.C. snipers, participated with John Muhammad  in taking the lives of innocent people whom he did not even know.  He was distraught about being apprehended but not in the least conscience-stricken about the individuals whom the two of them murdered.

What is particularly astonishing is that these hardened criminals believe that, at heart, they are decent people.  “If I thought of myself as evil, I couldn’t live,” remarked one.  Once they are being interrogated, these individuals may confess to their crimes, even concede wrongdoing, and understand they will be punished.  But when I ask, “Do you think you are a bad person,” the answer is always, “No.”  How does a one man walking crime wave who inflicts such massive damage retain the view he is a good guy?  He may point to the fact that he works, goes to school, contributes to a charity, or attends church.  He may cite his musical, artistic, or other talents.  He may boast about good deeds that he does for others.  Mainly, he will point to crimes he has not yet committed and say that anyone who engages in that behavior is a bad person.  Said one man, “Anyone who knocks a little old lady down and steals her purse should be strung up.”  He professed he would never do that.  But he did break into homes, sometimes when the terrified residents were present, and rob them of cherished heirlooms and other valued property. But that was alright, to his way of thinking, because he did not accost these people and assault them on the street.

Certainly, then, there are individuals who willingly choose to do evil things, who are not forced into behaving in a destructive manner but relish building themselves up the expense of others. “Take my crime away, and you take my world away,” one criminal asserted.  Another commented, “Crime is like ice cream; it’s delicious.”  Both of these individuals had escaped apprehension after committing scores of crimes. The impact of what they had done impacted hundreds of people as well as society at large. Is it not appropriate to speak of “evil” in this context?

Good or Evil?