In one sense evil can just refer to bad stuff in general. In Christian theology the so-called problem of evil concerns the difficulty of asserting that there is a benevolent creator God while at the same time recognising there is so much evil (suffering and misfortune) in the world. In this context evil can be of two kinds: natural evil, which is suffering caused by natural events like famine, flood, earthquake, disease etc, and moral evil, which is suffering caused by other people's voluntary actions. There used to be a third kind of evil discussed by theologians known as metaphysical evil. This had nothing to do with suffering or pain but refers to the fact that the natural world is imperfect. Not everything works in harmony; humans possess incomplete knowledge; things run down and break. It's hard to think anyone would even consider of that kind of thing as evil nowadays.
The second sense of evil carries with it the idea of malice or doing a deliberate harm to someone and this is the sense in which we will be discussing it at the Stoa. The idea is that in 'ordinary immorality' a person may cause another suffering but that is not the main purpose of the act. The perpetrator just wants something that the victim has and is indifferent to the consequences for the victim. With an evil act the whole purpose is to maliciously inflict suffering. However, mere malice is surely not enough for a judgement of evil. A minor spiteful act is just ordinary badness. An evil act is one that an ordinary person in their worst moment (or so we like to believe) would never do. All of us can, no doubt, imagine stealing, cheating, lying, even killing in extreme circumstances - and feeling remorse for it afterwards. But how many of us can imagine torturing a child to death just for pleasure as Myra Hindly and Ian Brady did in the 1960s? Evil therefore involves both the intention to cause suffering for its own sake and to cause it to a horrific degree.
In her 1963 book 'Eichmann in Jerusalem' Hannah Arendt coined the term 'The Banality of Evil' to draw a contrast with the popular conception of evil as something deep, mysterious and philosophically profound - the Hannibal Lecter type of evil. Arendt saw Eichmann as simply someone without the imagination or affect to really appreciate the significance of what he was doing. The Nazi regime, as in all genocidal contexts, systematically and incrementally dehumanised its victims until killing them became an unremarkable routine. They also created a bureaucracy enabling a division of labour so that no one person could ever see themselves as alone responsible for the killing. Each person in the machine simply performed their own specific task and so responsibility was diffused. This type of the evil has been described as "reason without passion".
In the 1960s Yale University psychologist, Stanley Milgram, carried out a series of psychological experiments which ascertained the willingness of ordinary people to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. It transpired that many of the subjects were willing to cause pain to a complete stranger, even though they appeared uncomfortable doing so, as long as they had been authorised to do it.
In 1971 a team of researchers led by Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University set up a role-playing experiment, the so-called 'Stanford Prison Experiment', in which undergraduate volunteers played the roles of both guards and prisoners living in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. Prisoners and guards rapidly adapted to their roles, stepping beyond the boundaries of what had been predicted. One-third of the guards were judged to have exhibited "genuine" sadistic tendencies, while many prisoners were emotionally traumatized.
Both these experiments are often quoted to show how quite ordinary people are able to do overcome qualms of conscience if they are instructed by an authority to perform an immoral act. And this is in peacetime when there is no additional threat to their lives. How easy, it is argued, for an Eichman to arise in wartime.
In contrast to a banal Eichman the evil perpetrated by a sociopath, such as a serial killer, entails the intimate pleasure of complete power of life and death over another human being and the ability to cause them suffering at will. This has been described as "passion without reason". Surely torturing someone to death must be the nadir of all evil.
The sociopath is typified by extreme self-serving behaviour, a lack of conscience, a lack of remorse for harm done to others, an inability to empathize with others or to restrain him/herself from impulsive or harmful actions. However, a diagnosis of antisocial or sociopathic personality disorder (formerly called psychopathic mental disorder), is sometimes criticized as being no more scientific than just calling a person "evil" and thus has no real explanatory power.
Most neurological research into sociopathology has focused on regions of the neocortex involved in impulse control. Other research seems to indicate that sociopathy may at least partially be related to a lack of ability to realize the true consequences of one's actions.
Questions for discussion:
- Can human evil be explained purely in terms of ordinary human dispositions and drives or do we need recourse to a supernatural cause? Is there an evil force or power in the universe that accounts for the depth and depravity of certain human actions?
- Does talk about evil just hinder our understanding of what motivates people to do terrible things? I recall the detective who was dealing with the Bulger murder case saying in an interview that he thought Venables and Thompson were simply evil. As an expression of horror and outrage this seems quite appropriate but it appears to block any further investigation of causes and motivation. What more is there to be said once you've pronounced a person evil?
- Are there any acts that are absolutely evil and which should never be contemplated under any circumstances: torture, for instance?
- We have no problem with the idea of saints as particularly good people. Are some people genuinely moral monsters who are beyond reform? And if so how should the law deal with them?
- When we first heard the Fred and Rosemary West story we were understandably horrified but still we watch dramas on TV and at the movies that depict similar killings - and we do it for entertainment! What does that tell us about ourselves? What do we think of dramas depicting recent serial killers, like Harold Shipman or the Moors Murderers, when the relatives of the victims are still alive?
- Do the Millgram and Stanford prison experiments demonstrate how ordinary people can be manipulated into doing evil things? If you had been a subject in one of these experiments how do you think you would have behaved?
- The Property Misdescription Act (1991) states that things such as public rights of way across the property must be declared, but there's no legal duty for an estate agent to declare a murder or suicide. In the USA regulations vary from state to state. Estate agents call these 'Stigmatised Properties'. People vary on how uncomfortable they feel about living in such places. How would you feel if you discovered that a serial killer had tortured several people to death in the very room you sleep in every night? Would it be superstitious to feel uncomfortable? What was left of the house of Fred and Rosemary West at 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester was ground-up into powder and buried deep in an undisclosed location. Dennis Nilsen's murder house at 23 Cranley Gardens, Muswell Hill, north London was turned into flats, but an estate agent selling the properties in the 1980s said they were almost impossible to offload because "people seemed to think that something was still there, lurking under the floorboards".
Some articles on Evil
- The concept of evil An historical survey of the development of the concept
- Evil, Mad or Bad? Are psychopaths sick or evil?
- What Psychopaths can teach us Are psychopaths responsible for their actions?
- Psychiatrist brings back concept of evil Michael Stone, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York, wants to bring back evil as a category for patients
- For the Worst of Us, the Diagnosis May Be 'Evil' Dr. Michael Welner, an associate professor of psychiatry at New York University, has been developing what he calls a depravity scale, which rates the horror of an act by the sum of its grim details.
- On Evil Response to the idea that some psychiatrists want to use the term evil to classify some types of patient
- Do Humanists Need the Concept of Evil? An essay arguing that in a secular society the term Evil needs to be dropped as it doesn't aid understanding
- Expunging Evil from our Language Some modern philosophers want to hold on to the idea of evil even after giving up the traditional religious context. This writer believes that the word evil obfuscates discussion
- Moral Monsters A 20 page paper that argues from a Christian perspective that in the same way we can have moral heroes in the form of saints so also there can be moral monsters whose depravity is so profound that they are beyond reform
- The Banality of Evil The concept of the banality of evil came into prominence following the publication of Hannah Arendt's 1963 book 'Eichmann in Jerusalem', which was based on the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt's thesis was that people who carry out unspeakable crimes, like Eichmann, may not be crazy fanatics at all, but rather ordinary individuals who simply accept the premises of their state and participate in any ongoing enterprise with the energy of good bureaucrats.
- The Concept of Evil Why it's intellectually valid and politically and spiritually important
- There is no honour in doing evil for a good cause The ethics of the Iraq invasion
- Torture, thinking of the unthinkable Raimond Gaita argues that torture should always be regarded as evil and therefore unthinkable
- Entry on Evil from the Catholic Encyclopedia
- On the Alleged Vacuity of Kant's Concept of Evil Heavy philosophical piece - be warned!
Some serial killers for your edification!
- Moors Murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley
- Fred & Rosemary West
- Harold Shipman
- John Wayne Gacy
- Ted Bundy
- Jeffrey Dahmer
- Beverley Allitt
- Dennis Nilsen
- Peter Sutcliffe
- John George Haigh The Haigh case was also dramatized in the 2002 made-for-TV movie 'A is for Acid', in which Haigh was played by Martin Clunes.