Sunday, February 7, 2010

People of the Lie

Studies from the book, "People of the Lie," by M. Scott Peck

To better understand evil, it is worthwhile to consider the conclusions of scholars, such as M. Scott Peck, Erich Fromm, Martin Buber and others who devoted a good part of their lives to the study of the nature of the workings of the minds of evil people. Although many thinkers, ethicists, theologians and behavioral scientists have written volumes on the subject and many of those have influenced my thinking, I gained my clearest perspective after reading Peck's book, "People of the Lie." M. Scott Peck was the noted psychiatrist, who also wrote "The Road Less Traveled," one of the best selling books of all time. Therefore, many of the observations and conclusions which follow are taken either directly from his writings or are paraphrasings (so much so that this would really be considered a book review rather than an original discussion). For me to claim (or allude to) them as my own would be plagiarism and therefore I give full attribution to Dr. Peck for the excellent work he did in his analysis of the nature of evil.

Value Judgement

To label certain human beings as evil is to make an obviously severely critical value judgment. Jesus made a statement, often stated out of context, "Judge not, that ye be not judged." But that lesson did not mean we should never judge our neighbor, because he went on to say, "Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of your brother's eye." Together, those thoughts seem to mean that we should judge others only with great care, and that such carefulness begins with self-judgment. We cannot begin to hope to heal human evil until we are able to look at it directly. It is not a pleasant sight. There is a vital reason to correctly name evil for what it is, so that there can possibly be the healing of its victims. How are we to take Christ's admonition to " judge not lest you be judged" and still label someone as evil? If you see something wrong, don't you try to correct it? Jim Jones? Medical experiments on Jews? There is such a thing as an excess of sympathy, an excess of tolerance, an excess of permissiveness. We cannot lead decent lives without making judgments; general and moral judgments in particular. Christ did not enjoin us to refrain from ever judging. What he went on to say in those next four verses is that we should judge ourselves before we judge others, not that we should not judge at all. We are to purify ourselves before judging others. This is where 'the evil' fail. It is the self-criticism they avoid.
Understanding human evil

Evil can be done against others without apparent physical damage. We may "break" a horse or even a child without harming a hair on its head. Erich Fromm was acutely sensitive to this, when he broadened the definition of necrophilia to include the desire of certain people to control others, to make them controllable, to foster their dependency, to discourage their capacity to think for themselves, to diminish their unpredictability and originality, to keep them in line. Fromm described that there is a "necrophiliac character type," whose aim it is to avoid the inconvenience of life by transforming others into obedient automatons, robbing them of their humanity. Evil can be primarily defined as that force, residing either inside or outside of human beings, which seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is that which promotes life and liveliness. As Jesus said, "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly." There is another reaction that the evil frequently engenders in us, confusion. Describing an encounter with an evil person, one woman wrote, it was "as if I'd suddenly lost my ability to think." Once again, this reaction is quite appropriate. Lies confuse. The evil are "the people of the lie," deceiving others as they also build layer upon layer of self-deception. It is not their sins per se that characterize evil people, rather is is the subtlety and persistence and consistency of their sins. This is because the central defect of the evil is not the sin, but the refusal to acknowledge it. They are criminals in that they commit "crimes" against life and liveliness. Their "crimes" are many times so subtle and covert that they often cannot clearly be designated as crime. The theme of hiding and covertness will occur again and again.

Other definitions of evil

Although the evil are certainly not healthy, they are not easily (or credibly) classified for what they are by conventional mental health standards. This is because, scientifically, there has not yet been developed a definition for their disease. If evil people cannot be defined by the illegality of their deeds (which will often occur at some point in their lives, most often tragically too late for their victims) or the magnitude of their sins, then how are we to define them? The answer is by the consistency of their sins. While usually subtle, their destructiveness is remarkably consistent. This is because, those who have "crossed over the line" are characterized by their absolute refusal to tolerate the sense of their own sinfulness. The evil in this world is committed by the spiritual fat cats, by the Pharisees of our own day, the self-righteous, who think they are without sin, because they are unwilling to suffer the discomfort of significant self-examination. The evil do not serenely bear the trial of being displeasing to themselves. In fact, they don’t bear it at all. And it is out of their failure to put themselves on trial that their evil arises. The varieties of people’s wickedness are manifold. As a result of their refusal to tolerate the sense of their own sinfulness, the evil ones become uncorrectable grab bags of sin.

Scapegoating, a key characteristic

A predominant characteristic of the behavior of the evil is scapegoating. Because in their hearts they consider themselves above reproach, they must lash out at anyone who does reproach them. Definition: Scapegoat - an innocent accused and forced to take blame. And more significant, one who is the object of irrational hostility. Scapegoating works through a mechanism which psychiatrists call projection. Since the evil, deep down, feel themselves to be faultless, it is inevitable that while they are in conflict with the world, they will invariably perceive the conflict as the world's fault. Since they must deny their own badness, they must perceive others as bad. They project their own evil onto the world. They never think of themselves as evil; on the other hand, they consequently see much evil in others.

Evil, then, is most often committed in order to scapegoat, and the people who can be designated as evil are invariably chronic scapegoaters. In other words, the evil will attack others instead of facing their own failures. Spiritual growth requires the acknowledgment of one's need to grow. If we cannot make that acknowledgment, we have no option except to attempt to eradicate the evidence of our own imperfection. Strangely enough, evil people are often destructive because they are attempting to destroy evil which they identify as in others. The problem is that they misplace the locos of the evil. Instead of destroying others, they should be destroying the sickness within themselves. As their life experience and actions are subjected to examination by others, such exposure will often threaten their self-image of perfection, and they are often busily engaged in hating and destroying those person's lives, usually in the name or righteousness. The fault, however, may not be so much that they hate life as that they do not hate the sinful part of themselves. Because in their hearts they consider themselves above reproach, an evil person who "scapegoats" must lash out at anyone who does reproach them.

They sacrifice others to preserve their self-image of perfection. Take a simple example of a six-year-old boy who asks his father, “Daddy, why did you call Grandmommy a bitch?” “I told you to stop bothering me,” the father roars. “Now you’re going to get it. I’m going to teach you not to use such filthy language. I’m going to wash your mouth out with soap. Maybe that will teach you to clean up what you say and keep your mouth shut when you’re told.” Dragging the boy upstairs to the soap dish, the father inflicts this punishment on him. In the name of “proper discipline” evil has been committed. The father perceived the profanity and uncleanliness as existing in his son and took action to cleanse his son’s “filthiness.” Yet we know it was the father who was profane and unclean. The father projected his own filth onto his son and then assaulted his son in the name of good parenting. Evil, then, is most often committed in order to scapegoat, and evil people are chronic scapegoaters. In other words, the evil attack others instead of facing their own failures. Spiritual growth requires the acknowledgment of one’s need to grow. If we cannot make that acknowledgment, we have no option except to attempt to eradicate the evidence of our imperfection.

Use of power to destroy spiritual growth

Evil is further defined as the use of power to destroy the spiritual growth of others for the purpose of defending and preserving the integrity of their own sick selves.This definition provides a further explanation of the scapegoating mechanism . They scapegoat not the strong but the weak. For the evil to so misuse their power, they must have the power to use in the first place. They must have some kind of dominion over their victims. And for adults to be the victims of evil, they too must be powerless to escape. They may be powerless when a gun is held to their head, as when the Jews were herded into the gas chambers or when the inhabitants of MyLai were lined up to be shot. Or they may be powerless by virtue of their own failure of courage. They maybe powerless because of their own greed to want to be provided for materially without having the normal obligations of a work-a-day world. This is often found in the "commune phenomenon," in which groups (or even just one individual, such as a mistress) will surrender their will to a charismatic leader who will provide for their shelter and food and clothing.

Dedication to a Self-image of Perfection

The evil are utterly dedicated to preserving their self-image of perfection, they are unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity. They worry about this a great deal. They are acutely sensitive to social norms and what others might think of them. They often dress well, go to work on time, pay their taxes, and outwardly seem to live lives that are above reproach. The words “image,” “appearance,” and “outwardly” are crucial to understanding the morality of the evil. While they seem to lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good. Their “goodness” is all on a level of pretense. It is, in effect, a lie. This is why they are the “people of the lie.” Actually, the lie is designed not so much to deceive others as to deceive themselves. They cannot or will not tolerate the pain of self-reproach. The decorum with which they lead their lives is maintained as a mirror in which they can see themselves reflected righteously. Yet the self-deceit would be unnecessary if the evil had no sense of right and wrong.

We lie only when we are attempting to cover up something we know to be illicit. Some rudimentary form of conscience must precede the act of lying. There is no need to hide unless we first feel that something needs to be hidden. We come now to a sort of paradox. Evil people feel themselves to be perfect. At the same time, however, they have an unacknowledged sense of their own evil nature. Indeed, it is this very sense from which they are frantically trying to flee. The essential component of evil is not the absence of a sense of sin or imperfection but the unwillingness to tolerate that sense. At once and the same time, the evil are aware of their evil and desperately trying to avoid the awareness. Rather than blissfully lacking a sense of morality like the psychopath, they are continually engaged in sweeping the evidence of their evil under the rug of their own consciousness (or attempting to redefine their evil as good). The problem is not a defect of conscience, but the effort to deny the conscience its due. We become evil by attempting to hide from ourselves. The wickedness of the evil is not committed directly, but indirectly as a part of this cover-up process. Evil originates not in the absence of guilt but in the effort to escape it. Since they will do almost anything to avoid the particular pain that comes from self-examination, under ordinary circumstances, the evil are the last people who would ever come to psychotherapy. The evil hate the light – the light of goodness that shows them up, the light of scrutiny that exposes them, the light of the truth that penetrates their deception. Psychotherapy is a light-shedding process par excellence.

Except for the most twisted motives, an evil person would be more likely to choose any other conceivable route than the psychiatrist's couch. The submission to the discipline of self-observation, required by psychoanalysis does, in fact, seem to them like suicide. The most significant reason we know so little scientifically about human evil is simply that the evil are so extremely reluctant to be studied. It often happens that the evil may be recognized by its very disguise. The lie can sometimes be perceived before the misdeed that it was designed to hide, the cover-up before the fact. We see the smile that hides the hatred, the smooth and oily manner that masks the fury, the velvet glove that covers the fist. However, because they are such experts at disguise, it is seldom possible to pinpoint the maliciousness of the evil. The disguise is usually impenetrable. Since the primary motive of the evil is disguise, one of the places evil people are most likely to be found is within the church. What better way to conceal one's evil from oneself, as well as from others, than to be a deacon or some other highly visible form of Christian within our culture? Evil people tend to gravitate toward piety for the disguise and concealment it can offer them.


The essential psychological problem of human evil is a particular variety of narcissism. Narcissism, or self-absorption, takes many forms. Some are normal. Some are normal in childhood but not in adulthood. Some are more distinctly pathological than others. If the central defect of the evil is not one of conscience, then where does it reside? The essential psychological problem of human evil is a particular variety of narcissism. Definition: Narcissism - A pattern of traits and behaviors which signify infatuation and obsession with one's self to the exclusion of all others and the egotistic and ruthless pursuit of one's gratification, dominance and ambition. There is a particular pathologic variant that Erich Fromm called "malignant narcissism." Malignant narcissism is characterized by an unsubmitted will. All adults who are mentally healthy submit themselves one way or another to something higher than themselves, be it God or truth or love or some other ideal. They do what God wants them to do rather than what they would desire. “Thy will, not mine, be done,” the God-submitted person says. They believe in what is true rather than what they would like to be true. What their beloved needs, becomes more important to them than their own gratification. In summary, to a greater or lesser degree, all mentally healthy individuals submit themselves to the demands of their own conscience. Not so the evil, however. In the conflict between their guilt and their will, it is the guilt that must go and the will that must win.

Theologians speak of evil being a consequence of free will. When God, creating us in His own image, gave us free will, He had to allow us humans the option of evil. The problem can also be envisioned in the so-called "secular" terms of evolution theory (or the more scientifically acceptable explanation). Such would be explained in terms of the “will” of less evolved creatures seeming to be largely under the control of their instincts. And continuing that line of reasoning, when humans evolved from the apes, they largely evolved out from under such instinctual controls and hence into free will. Following that sequence of logic, this evolution placed humans in the position of being totally willful or having to seek new ways of self-control through submission to higher principles. But this still leaves us with the question of why some human beings are able to achieve such submission while others are not. Indeed, it is almost tempting to think that the problem of evil lies in the will itself. Perhaps the evil are born so inherently strong-willed that it is impossible for them to ever submit their will. Yet, it appears that it is characteristic of most “great” people that they are extremely strong-willed, whether their greatness be for good or for evil. The crucial distinction is between “willingness and willfulness.”

There is an extraordinary willfulness of evil people. They are men and women of obviously strong will, determined to have their own way. There is a remarkable power in the manner in which they attempt to control others. The willful failure of submission that characterizes malignant narcissism is depicted in both the stories of Satan and of Cain and Abel.. Satan refused to submit to God's judgment that Christ was superior to him. For Christ to be preferred meant that Satan was not. Satan was less than Christ in God's eyes. For Satan to have accepted God's judgment, he would have to accept his own imperfection. This he could not or would not do. It was unthinkable that he was imperfect. Consequently submission was impossible and both the rebellion and fall inevitable. And for Cain, he, like Satan, decided that he should take the law into his own hands and commit murder. In some similar fashion, although it is usually more subtle, all who are evil also take the law into their own hands, to destroy life or liveliness in defense of their narcissistic self-image.

Pride and Arrogance

Being at the very root of evil, it is no accident that church scholars have generally considered pride first among the sins. By the sin of pride they do not generally mean the sense of legitimate achievement one might enjoy after a job well done. While such pride, like normal narcissism, may have its pitfalls, it is also part of healthy self-confidence and a realistic sense of self-worth. What is meant is, rather, a kind of pride that unrealistically denies our inherent sinfulness and imperfection – a kind of smug self-righteous pride or arrogance that prompts people to reject and even attack the judgment implied by the day-to-day evidence of their own inadequacy. In Martin Buber's words, the malignantly narcissistic insist upon "affirmation independent of all findings." The failure of the evil to define themselves as disordered is an essential, integral component of their condition. What is the cause of this overweening pride, this arrogant self-image of perfection, this particularly malignant type of narcissism? Why does it afflict a few when most seem to escape its clutches? We do not know. In the past fifteen years, psychiatrists have begun to pay increasing attention to the phenomenon of narcissism, but our understanding of the subject is still in its infancy. We have not yet succeeded, for instance, in distinguishing the different types of excessive self-absorption. There are many who are clearly -- even grossly -- narcissistic in one way or another, but are not evil. All that can be said at this point is that the particular brand of narcissism that characterizes evil people seems to be one that particularly afflicts the will. Why a person should be a victim of this type and not another or none at all, can only be vaguely surmised. The utter failure to submit oneself to reality is the extreme state of narcissism, narcissism in its ultimate form, oblivious to certain essential dimensions of reality. Such people literally live "in a world of their own" in which the self reigns supreme. For the complete narcissist, others have no more psychologic reality than a piece of furniture. Narcissists have only what Martin Buber calls, "I-I relationships." They exercise a strange sort of political power, that is, the imposition of one's will upon others by overt or covert coercion, in order to prevent individual spiritual growth.

Evil could have been defined most simply as the use of political power to destroy others for the purpose of defending or preserving the integrity of own' s sick self. Nonetheless, a leading theory of the genesis of pathological narcissism is that it is a defensive phenomenon. Most people fail in the art of living, not because they are inherently bad or because they so much without will that they cannot lead a better life; they fail because they do not wake up and see when they stand at a fork in the road and have to decide. They are not aware when life asks them a question, and when they still have alternative answers. Then with each step along the wrong road it becomes increasingly difficult for them to admit that they are on the wrong road, often only because they have to admit that they are on the wrong road, often only because they have to admit that they must go back to the first wrong turn, and must accept the fact that they have wasted energy and time. Fromm saw the genesis of human evil as a developmental process, that we are not created evil or forced to be evil, but we become evil slowly ove r time through a long series of choices. As C.S. Lewis puts it, "There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan." Characteristic of the evil is that theirs is a brand of narcissism so total that they seem to lack, in whole or in part, the capacity for empathy.We can see, then, that their narcissism makes the evil dangerous, not only because it motivates them to scapegoat others, but also because it deprives them of the restraint that results from empathy and respect for others. In addition to the evil needing victims to sacrifice to their narcissism, their narcissism permits them to ignore the humanity of their victims as well. As it can give them the motive for murder, so it also can render them insensitive to the act of killing. The blindness of the narcissist to others can extend even beyond a lack of empathy; narcissists may not "see" others at all. Each of us is unique. Except in the mystical frame of reference, we are all separate entities. Our uniqueness makes each of us an "I entity," providing each of us with a separate identity. There are boundaries to the individual soul. And in our dealing with each other we generally respect these boundaries. It is characteristic of, and a prerequisite for mental health that our own ego boundaries should be clear and that we should clearly recognize the boundaries of others. We must know where we end and others begin. The evil fail to make those distinctions.

The Subtlety of Evil

One respect in which it is difficult to explain about evil is its subtlety. Evil sometimes will manifest itself obviously. In Dr. Peck's book, The People of the Lie, he described parents with two sons, whose oldest boy committed suicide. They subsequently gave the very rifle that boy used to end his life as a birthday gift to his younger brother. There, evil showed itself as quite apparent, but it rarely does so. More commonly, evil's manifestations are seemingly ordinary, superficially normal, and even apparently rational. Those who are evil are masters of disguise; they are not apt to wittingly disclose their true colors, either to others or to themselves. It is not without reason that the serpent is renowned for his subtlety. It is exceedingly rare, therefore, that we can pass judgment on a person as being evil after observing a single act; instead, our judgment must be made on the basis of a whole pattern of acts as well as their manner and style. There is something basically incomprehensible about evil. But if not incomprehensible, it is characteristically inscrutable . The evil always hide their motives with lies. Wherever there is evil, there's a lie around. Evil always has something to do with lies. Naturally, since it is designed to hide its opposite, the pretense chosen by the evil is most commonly the pretense of love. The pretense of the evil is designed at least as much to deceive themselves as others. A child can emotionally survive only by virtue of a massive fortification of its psyche. While such fortifications or psychological defenses are essential to its survival through childhood, they inevitably distort or compromise its life as an adult.

Creating a sick society

The denial of their own suffering is, in fact, a better definition of illness than its acceptance. The evil deny the suffering of their guilt, the painful awareness of their sin, inadequacy, and their imperfection by casting their pain onto others through projection and scapegoating. They themselves may not suffer, but those around them do. They cause suffering. The evil create for those under their dominion a miniature sick society. Think of the psychic energy required for the continued maintenance of the pretense so characteristic of the evil. They perhaps direct at least as much energy into their devious rationalizations and destructive compensations as the healthiest do into loving behavior. Why? What possesses them, drives them? Basically it is fear. They are terrified that the pretense will break down and they will be exposed to the world and to themselves. They are continually frightened that they will come face-to-face with their own evil. Of all emotions, fear is the most painful. Regardless of how well they attempt to appear calm and collected in their daily dealings, the evil live their lives in fear. It is a terror and a suffering so chronic, so interwoven into the fabric of their being, that they may not even feel it as such. And if they could, their omnipresent narcissism will prohibit them from ever acknowledging it. We can surely pity them for the lives they live of almost unremitting apprehension.

Evil as a personality disorder

Illness and disease could be defined as any defect in the structure of our bodies or our personalities that prevents us from fulfilling our potential as human beings. A good definition of such potential can be found in Abraham Maslow's description of "self-actualized" persons in his book, Motivation and Personality. He believes that the phenomenon of evil can and should be subjected to scientific scrutiny. Of course, if evil an illness, it is not only a disease; it is the ultimate disease. The existing broad psychiatric category of "personality disorders" currently covers those psychiatric conditions in which the denial of personal responsibility is the prominent feature. By virtue of their unwillingness to tolerate the sense of personal sin and the denial of their imperfection, the evil easily fit into this broad diagnostic category. There is even within this class a subcategory entitled "narcissistic personality disorder." It might be quite appropriate to classify evil people as constituting a specific variant of the narcissistic personality disorder. Many of the evil people seen by psychiatrists are diagnosed as having "ambulatory schizophrenia." And those who are personally exposed to those who have been designated as "ambulatory schizophrenics" most often define them as evil people. Peck believed that the time is right for psychiatry to recognize a distinct new type of personality disorder to encompass those which he defined as evil.

A proposed new scientific definition of evil

In addition to the abrogation of responsibilities characterizing all personality disorders, this one would specifically be distinguished by: (a) consistent destructive, scapegoating behavior, which may often be quite subtle. (b) excessive, albeit usually covert, intolerance to criticism and other forms of narcissistic injury. (c) pronounced concern with a public image and self-image of respectability, contributing to a stability of life-style but also to pretentiousness and denial of hateful feelings or vengeful motives. (d) intellectual deviousness, with an increased likelihood of a mild schizophrenic-like disturbance of thinking at times of stress. But to get such a classification is probably not realistic. In that regard, it is noteworthy how difficult it is to examine evil people in depth, because it is their nature to avoid the light. Denying their imperfection, the evil flee both self-examination and any situation in which they might be closely examined by others.

The phenomenon of group evil

The phenomenon of group evil is somewhat distinct from, although in many respects similar to, the phenomenon of individual evil. Human groups tend to behave in much the same ways as human individuals-except at a level that is more primitive and immature that one might expect. Why this is so, why the behavior of groups is strikingly immature, why they are, from a psychological standpoint, less than the sum of their parts, is a question unable to be answered. One thing, however, is certain; there is more than one right answer. The phenomenon of group immaturity is, to use a psychiatric term, "overdetermined." This is to say that it is the result of multiple causes. One of those causes is the problem of specialization. Specialization contributes to the immaturity of groups and their potential for evil through several different mechanisms. One such mechanism: the fragmentation of conscience. Whenever the roles of individuals within a group become specialized, it become both possible and easy for the individual to pass the moral buck to some other part of the group. In this way, not only does the individual forsake his conscience but the conscience of the group as a whole can become so fragmented and diluted as to be nonexistent.

Any group will remain inevitably, potentially conscienceless and evil until such time as each and every individual holds himself or herself directly responsible for the behavior of the whole group... of which he or she is a part. As with any lie, the primary motive of a cover-up is fear. In a situation of prolonged discomfort we humans naturally, almost inevitably, tend to regress. Our psychological growth reverses itself; our maturity is forsaken. Can we not say that human beings are more likely to be evil in times of stress than in times of comfort? The truly good are those who in time of stress do not desert their integrity, their maturity, their sensitivity. Nobility might be defined as the capacity not to regress in response to degradation, not to become blunted in the face of pain, to tolerate the agonizing and remain intact. One measure-and perhaps the best measure-of a person's greatness is the capacity for suffering. Individuals not only routinely regress in times of stress, they also regress in group settings. One aspect of this regression is the phenomenon of dependency on the leader. Assemble any small group of strangers and almost the very first thing that happens is that one of them rapidly assumes the role of group leader. Most people would rather be followers. It is simply easy to follow, and much easier to be a follower than a leader. There is no need to agonize over complex decisions, plan ahead, exercise initiative, risk unpopularity, or exert much courage. The problem is that the role of follower is the role of child. The individual adult, as individual, is master of his own ship, director of his destiny. But when he assumes the role of follower, he hands over to the leader his power: his authority over himself and his maturity as decision-maker. He becomes psychologically dependent on the leader in the same way as a child is dependent on its parents. In this way, there is a profound tendency for the average individual to emotionally regress as soon as he becomes a group member. One therapy technique is to challenge the person's dependency within the group.... so that they learn how to exercise mature power in a group setting. The ideal mature therapy group is a group composed entirely of leaders. Most groups, however, do not have the opportunity or exist for the purpose of psychotherapy or personal growth. As an example, by nature of its mission, the military designedly and probably realistically fosters the naturally occurring regressive dependency of individuals within its groups.

Patterns of group behavior are remarkably similar to the behavior of an individual. This is because a group is an organism. It tends to function as a single entity. A group of individuals behave as a unit because of what is called group cohesiveness. There are profound forces at work within a group to keep its individual members together and in line. When these forces to cohesiveness fail, the group begins to disintegrate and ceases to be in a group. Probably the most powerful of these group cohesive forces is again narcissism (but, now group narcissism). In its simplest and most benign form, this is manifested in group pride. As the members feel proud of their group so the group feels proud of itself. A less benign, but practically universal form of group narcissism is what might be called "enemy creation," or hatred of the "out-group." We can see this naturally occurring in children as they first learn to develop groups. The groups become cliques. Those who do not belong to the group (club or clique) are despised as being inferior or evil or both. If a group does not already have an enemy, it will most likely create one in short order. It is almost common knowledge that the best way to cement group cohesiveness is to ferment the group's hatred of an external enemy. Deficiencies within the group can be easily and painlessly overlooked by focusing attention on the deficiencies or "sins" of the out-group.. Thus the Germans under Hitler could ignore their domestic problems by scapegoating the Jews. In the same fashion that evil individuals will flee self-examination and guilt by blaming and attempting to destroy whatever or whoever highlights their deficiencies, the same malignant narcissistic behavior comes naturally to groups. From this it should be obvious that the failing group is the one likely to behave most evilly. Failure wounds our pride, and it is the wounded animal who is vicious. In the healthy organism, failure will be a stimulus to self-examination and criticism. But since the evil individual cannot tolerate self-criticism, it is in time of failure that he or she will inevitably lash out one way or another. And so it is with groups. Group failure and the stimulation of group self-criticism act to damage group pride and cohesiveness. Group leaders in all places and ages have therefore routinely bolstered group cohesiveness in times of failure by whipping the group's hatred for foreigners or the "enemy." Considering more about the potential for evil in specialization, the specialized individual is in a position to pass the moral buck to some other specialized cog in the machine or onto the machine itself. The regression that individuals undergo when they take the role of followers in a group relates to specialization. The follower is not a whole person. He whose accepted role it is neither to think nor lead have defaulted his capacity to think and lead. And because thinking and leading are no longer his specialty or duty, he usually defaults his conscience in the bargain.

Turning from consideration of the specialized individual to the specialized group, we will see the same sorts of dangerous forces at work. The specialized group inevitably develops a group character that is self-reinforcing. Second, specialized groups are therefore particularly prone to narcissism, that is, to experiencing themselves as uniquely right and superior in relation to other homogeneous groups. Finally, the society at large- partly, through the self-selection process described, employs specific types of people to perform its specialized roles, as, for instance, it employs aggressive, unconventional men to perform its police functions. But, it is is not realistic to encourage and manipulate human beings into specialized groups and simultaneously expect them, without any significant training, to maintain a breath of the vision much beyond their specialty. The reality is that it is not only possible, but easy and even natural for a large group to commit evil without emotional involvement, simply by turning loose its specialists. What we need to learn is that whenever we create specialty groups, we are creating the dangerous possibility that our right hand will not know what our left is doing. We must realize the potential danger and structure of our specialty groups in such a way as to minimize it. Otherwise we will insulate ourselves from our own deeds, and as a whole people we will become like the individuals described in previous sections: evil. For evil arises in the refusal to acknowledge our own sins. Again and again, we have noted the birth of evil from a condition of threatened narcissism. As the highly narcissistic (evil) individual will strike out to destroy whoever challenges his or her self-image of perfection... Attitudes have a kind of inertia. Once set in motion, they will keep going, even in the face of the evidence. To change an attitude requires a considerable amount of work and suffering. The process must begin either in an purposefully maintained posture of constant self-doubt and criticism or else in a painful acknowledgment that what we thought was right all along may not be right after all. aIt is only from the quicksand of confusion that we are able to leap to the new and better vision.

Victims of evil

The most typical victim of evil is a child. This is to be expected, because children are not only the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society but also because parents wield a power over the lives of their children that is essentially absolute. The dominion of master over slave is not far different from the domination of parent over child. The child’s immaturity and resulting dependency mandate its parents’ possession of great power but do not negate the fact that this power, like all power, is subject to abuse of various degrees of malignancy. Moreover, the relationship between parent and child is one of enforced intimacy. A master could always sell a slave if the relationship was one he found intolerable. But just as children are not free from their parents, so it is not easy for parents to escape from their children and the pressures that their children impose. Another typical and rather intriguing feature is the extraordinary unity of the parents in the case studies Peck presents. Often both parents were evil.

Evil and Sin

It is not their sins per se that characterize evil people, rather it is the subtlety and persistence and consistency of their sins. This is because the central defect of the evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it. Except for their evil, evil people are most ordinary. They live down the street – on any street. They may be rich or poor, educated or uneducated. There is little that is dramatic about them. They are not designated criminals. More often than not they will be “solid citizens” – Sunday school teachers, policemen, or bankers, and active in the PTA.

Evil People vs. Criminals

How can this be? How can they be evil and not designated as criminals? The key lies in the word “designated.” They are criminals in that they commit “crimes” against life and liveliness. But except in rare instances – such as the case of a Hitler – when they might achieve extraordinary degrees of political power that remove them from ordinary restraints, their “crimes” are so subtle and covert that they cannot clearly be designated as crimes. Dr. Peck, spent a good deal of time working in prisons with designated criminals. Almost never did he experience them as evil people. Obviously they are destructive, and usually repetitively so. But there is a kind of randomness to their destructiveness. Moreover, although to the authorities they generally deny responsibility for their evil deeds, there is still a quality of openness to their wickedness. They themselves are quick to point this out, claiming that they have been caught, precisely because they are the “honest criminals.” The truly evil, those prisoners will say, almost always reside outside of jail. Although, clearly these proclamations are self-justifying. They are also, generally accurate. People in jail can almost always be assigned a standard psychiatric diagnosis of one kind or another. The diagnoses range all over the map and correspond, in layman’s terms, to such qualities as craziness or impulsiveness or aggressiveness or lack of conscience. The men and women defined as evil have no such obvious defects and do not fall clearly into routine psychiatric pigeonholes. This is not because the evil are healthy. It is simply because there has not yet developed a definition for their disease.

Evil Deeds vs. Evil People

Since there is a distinguishment between evil people and ordinary criminals, obviously there is the distinction between evil as a personality characteristic and evil deeds. In other words, evil deeds do not an evil person make. Otherwise we should all be evil, because we all do evil things. Sinning is most broadly defined as “missing the mark.” This means that we sin every time, we fail to hit the bull’s-eye. Sin is nothing more and nothing less than a failure to be continually perfect. Because it is impossible for us to be continually perfect, we are all sinners. We routinely fail to do the very best of which we are capable, and with each failure we commit a crime of sorts – against God, our neighbors, or ourselves, if not frankly against the law. Of course there are crimes of greater and lesser magnitude. It is a mistake, however, to think of sin or evil as a matter of degree. It may seem less odious to cheat the rich than the poor, but it is still cheating. There are differences before the law between defrauding a business, claiming a false deduction on your income tax, using a crib sheet in an examination, etc., etc., but the fact remains that they are all lies and betrayals. If you are sufficiently scrupulous not to have done any such thing recently, then ask whether there is any way in which you have lied to yourself. Or have kidded yourself. Or have been less than you could be – which is self- betrayal. Be perfectly honest with yourself, and you will realize that you sin. If you do not realize it, then you are not perfectly honest with yourself, which is itself a sin. It is inescapable: we are all sinners.

Cause of failure of self-hatred

What is the cause of this failure of self-hatred, this failure to be displeasing to oneself, which seems to be the central sin at the root of the scapegoating behavior of those called evil? The cause is not, an absent conscience. There are people, both in and out of jail, who seem utterly lacking in conscience or superego. Psychiatrists call them psychopaths or sociopaths. Guiltless, they not only commit crimes, but may often do so with a kind of reckless abandon. There is little pattern or meaning to their criminality and it is not particularly characterized by scapegoating. Conscienceless, psychopaths appear to be bothered or worried by very little – including their own criminality. They seem to be about as happy inside a jail or not. They do attempt to hide their crimes, but their efforts to do so are often feeble and careless and poorly planned. They have sometimes been referred to as “moral imbeciles,” and there is almost a quality of innocence to their lack of worry and concern.

Familial evil -- the genesis of narcissism

Evil seems to run in families. But the familial pattern, if accurate, does nothing to resolve the old "nature versus nurture" controversy. Does evil run in families because it is genetic and inherited? Or because it is learned by the child in imitation of its parents: Or even as a defense against its parents? And how are we to explain the fact that many of the children of evil parents, although usually scarred, are not evil? We do not know, and we will not know until an enormous amount of painstaking scientific work has been accomplished. Nonetheless, a leading theory of the genesis of pathological narcissism is that it is a defensive phenomenon. Since almost all young children demonstrate a formidable array of narcissistic characteristics, it is assumed that narcissism is something we generally "grow out of" in the course of normal development, through a stable childhood, under the care of loving and understanding parents. If the parents are cruel and unloving, however, or the childhood otherwise traumatic (such as the enduring the experiences of sexual abuse), it is believed that the infantile narcissism will be preserved as a kind of psychological fortress to protect the child against the vicissitudes of its intolerable life. This theory might well apply to the genesis of human evil. The builders of the medieval cathedrals placed upon their buttresses the figures of gargoyles -- themselves symbols of evil -- in order to ward off the spirits of greater evil. Thus children may become evil in order to defend themselves against the onslaught of parents who are evil. It is possible, therefore, to think of human evil -- or some of it -- as a kind of psychological gargoylism.

There are other ways, however, to look at the genesis of human evil. Some of us are very good and some of us very evil, and most of us are somewhere in between. We might therefore think of human good and evil as a kind of continuum. As individuals we can move ourselves one way or another along the continuum. Just as there is a tendency for the rich to get richer, however, and the poor to get poorer, so there seems to be a tendency for the good to get better and the bad to get worse.

Source: Lisa E Scott