Shocking examples of cruelty and violence appear in the news nearly every day. With the most heinous of these crimes, there is an understandable tendency to think of the perpetrators of these crimes as evil. Who else could torture and murder? To explain such cruelty, however, psychologists should avoid the religious concept of evil.
To begin, evil shuts down the possibility of psychological explanation. As a concept, evil stands alone and absolute, and open to abuse. People cannot be partially evil or understandably evil. And labeling people or political groups as “evil” sets them aside and condemns them as the impenetrable other, unable to be understood – outside the world of evil. In fact, a more distant view of such stigmatized people may even hold them blameless, possessed by a devil, leaving no recourse except quarantine or exorcism. For psychologists to eschew the concept of evil does not dismiss it from serious discussions of ethics or theology. But for social scientists seeking to understand the influences that lead to brutal acts, the invocation of evil is an unnecessary distraction, diverting attention away from explaining why such acts are committed.
There is also the problem of definition, which will necessarily be incomplete. The noted social psychologist Philip Zimbardo defined evil as “intentionally behaving, or causing others to act, in ways that demean, dehumanize, harm, destroy, or kill innocent people.” Impressively concise and comprehensive, this definition fits into the lexicon of social science, but it does so only by transferring evil to other concepts (demean and dehumanize) and to other observable actions (harming, destroying, or killing). A more direct approach is to use these more specific concepts and actions when describing and explaining violent perpetrators.
The social psychologist James Waller defined evil even more succinctly as “the deliberate harming of humans by other humans," but this elegant brevity blurs distinctions among very different instances of violence and ends up including nearly all adult human beings.
These and other definitions also bring with them the controversy of requiring explicit intentionality. In an armed political struggle, for example, it is difficult and often self-serving to maintain a moral distinction between planning to kill 50 innocent people and fully expecting to kill 50 innocent civilians – but not trying to. Moreover, as with most psychological definitions of evil, these definitions exclude cruelty to animals and willful despoliation of the natural environment.
When addressing the behavior of perpetrators in general terms, it is more precise to use secular and more circumscribed concepts, such as cruelty or brutality, or concepts that refer directly to well-defined categories of violent crime, such as abduction, harassment, torture, and murder.
Ultimately, thinking in terms of evil makes it very difficult to promote reconciliation. This year, as we approach the twentieth anniversary of democracy in South Africa, it is crucial to remember the importance of reconciliation in resolving widespread conflict. After nearly half a century of apartheid, F. W. de Klerk, the last president of apartheid South Africa, and Nelson Mandela, the first president of democratic South Africa, shared the Nobel Peace prize for their successful efforts in ending the violence and bloodshed of apartheid and for creating a new South Africa. During the fighting between the apartheid government and the liberation movements, people on each side thought of people on the other side as evil. But people cannot reconcile with evil beings. They can only reconcile with human beings, however flawed or destructive their past actions.