Remember the Electric Light Orchestra? I couldn’t resist. But I really want to say something about an e…evil woman. Actually, not really. I just wanted an excuse to say e..evil woman. Okay, I’ve said it, again. Now I’ve got it out of my system. I’ll stop with that.
But I do want to talk about evil. Evil’s such a dicey word. Evil? What is evil? What really makes someone evil? Do evil people exist?
That is, can someone even be evil: Are people evil, or just their behaviors?
I remember a friend of mine, a close friend, years ago, once called me an “evil m*therf*cker,” and I laughed. Did I laugh because I’m evil, thereby validating his accusation? Or did I laugh because I was secure enough to know I’m not?
By the way, what prompted his accusation was a really cruel, funny practical joke I played on him. I’m afraid he found it much more cruel than funny, whereas I found it much funnier than cruel. (Maybe some other time I’ll describe the joke?)
Speaking of cruel, is there a relationship between evil and cruelty? Are they the same thing? When you’re being cruel, or committing a cruel act, are you being evil? Is the cruelty itself evil?
If you don’t have a headache by now, I do. But that’s okay…I’ll even make it worse by posing some more light questions, like: Are exploiters, by definition, evil? Is exploitation always evil? Or, must acts of exploitation reach a certain threshhold of heinousness to constitute evil?
And what about our favorite friends, the sociopaths? Are sociopaths, by definition, evil? Sometimes? Always?
And then, of course, the really ultimate question: Do you really think I’m going to answer these questions?
Do you really think I’m crazy, and grandiose, enough, to tackle these questions?
Maybe I am…but I can assure you, not adequately. Still, I will “man up” and offer some “takes” on these heady matters, if for no other purpose than to drum-up some good discussion!
I fully expect, incidentally, your feedback to change my mind on, and views of, these questions many times, exposing (you can be sure) the fickleness of my positions.
But, for the moment, here are my short answers:
I believe people can be evil, not just do evil; in other words, I believe some people are evil.
I believe that evil is always cruel, but that cruelty is not always evil.
I believe that evil is always exploitative, but that exploitation is not always evil.
I believe that evil is always destructive, but that destructiveness is not always evil.
Consistent with these views, I believe that some exploiters and, more specifically, some sociopaths—but not all—are evil.
Now, for my personal working definition of evil, in all its glaring limitations: Evil, as I see it, is the lust to express cruelty towards, and/or destructiveness of, others.
There it is. Note the boldfaced “lust to express;” I regard the “lust” as a central element of evil.
Let me dive right into an elaboration of some of my positions.
Evil is always cruel, but cruelty is not always evil. My view here is that evil, fortunately, is less commonplace than cruelty. Cruelty, however, is tragically commonplace.
Most of us are capable of cruelty, but most of us are not evil. This isn’t to diminish the impact of cruelty. In fact, because cruelty is so commonplace and destructive, it is arguably the worst part of human nature.
But not all cruelty is lust-driven. When cruelty is lust-driven, it is evil. When not, it is something less than evil—although I stress that even this debatable point doesn’t lessen cruelty’s impact one iota.
I think the same applies to “exploitation”—that is, exploitation is cruel, always, but not always evil. Valid or not, this assertion isn’t meant to minimize the potentially traumatic impact of exploitation.
Let me give a relatively benign example: A slick colleague convinces you to lend him $150 cash, promising to pay you back in a couple days. The next day, he’s gone. Has left the job. Quit. Never gave notice. The boss is bewildered, and you are too. You never hear from him again. You knew him well enough (so you thought) to lend him the money, but not, as it turns out, as well as you thought. The money probably bought his Amtrak ticket to Seattle.
You were fleeced. He knew he’d be gone, and he had no intention of honoring his debt. To him, you weren’t so much a nice guy whose generosity he appreciated, as much as, ultimately, a sucker. You were taken. He’s a sociopath.
But he needed the money, and put it to practical use. The problem is, he stole it from you. But he needed the money, and money is money, however he can get his hands on it. Not all sociopaths think like this, but some do.
This sociopath was thinking somewhat pragmatically; he needed the money and schemed to get it. But here’s the point: He didn’t lust for your suffering as much as he lusted for your money. Basically, he was greedy and sociopathically conniving, and so he took what he wanted, not per se to inflict pain or harm on you, but because he wanted it.
In this instance, he is exploitative, in my view, but not evil.
Is he cruel? Not in this example. I define cruel as having an intention to inflict harm or pain on someone. This could be mental, or physical pain. It is arguably cruel, for instance, to dismiss someone contemptuously, and yet it is not necessarily cruel, but is definitely exploitative, to con someone out of $150.
A former client of mine, around 1994, shot-up a bunch of kids at a swimming pool with a semi-automatic weapon. (For my own pathetic ego, I was grateful he waited until about two years after I last saw him.) He’d been dually diagnosed as a psychopath and paranoid schizophrenic. Was he evil? I don’t think so, although I appreciate that those kids, and their families, might have thought so.
In any case, I think he was more paranoid than evil, although he was certainly cruel. I also think that he believed that those kids were evil.
So, in this case, which is not hypothetical, I’d suggest that my ex-client was cruel, but not necessarily evil, or for that matter, even exploitative.
How about a Bernie Madoff? Is Bernie Madoff evil? I don’t think so. Yet he may very well be a sociopath and most certainly was heinously exploitative. Was he cruel? I don’t think so, again. I don’t think it was Madoff’s intention to inflict suffering on anyone. That wasn’t his primary motive to do what he did, despite the devastating impact of his greed and deception.
Regarding cruelty: for me, to be cruel implies, and requires, an intention to cruelty; it is a separate issue whether the consequences of your actions are experienced as cruel. I suspect that Madoff’s victims will describe him as cruel, if only for his indifference. However, I don’t see, from the little that is known about this case, that “cruelty” drove Madoff’s exploitation.
Now let’s tackle some big fish: How about Saddam Hussein and Adolph Hitler?
Hussein, in my view, was both cruel and exploitative, but I’m not sure I’d call him evil. Hussein’s lust was principally for power, less principally (one might argue) evil-driven. His cruelty was more a means to an end—the “end” being the consolidation and preservation of his power, by whatever ruthless means necessary. Was he a sociopath? Very possibly.
Hitler, I think, was cruel, exploitative, and evil. Hitler’s lust transcended his obsession with power; his was a lust to exterminate the Jews and other “non-desirables.” In other words, apart from his pathological lust for power, he also had a lust for cruelty and destruction. The latter meets the criteria of evil.
What do you think? Whatever it is, I’m betting it’ll change my mind?
(This article is copyrighted (c) 2009 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)