April 13, 2006


Photo: Whoever said there is no rest for the wicked may want to reconsider in light of the photographic evidence. It's probably a good thing that even devils get tired sometimes.

This is the second of two posts on the theory of evil as developed by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, author of Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty.

Yesterday's post talked about how the "myth of pure evil" not only keeps us from understanding how evil works but also feeds the beast. Today's will deal with the main types of evil identified by Baumeister and how they seem to start and grow.

SADISM. Contrary to the myth of pure evil, deliberate sadism which inflicts cruelty for the fun of it is probably the rarest form of human evil, accounting for perhaps 5 to 6 percent. Most people do not at least initially enjoy inflicting harm on others, although it gets easier with repetition. It appears to be an acquired taste with some of the same mechanisms of addiction.

INSTRUMENTAL EVIL. A far more common type of evil is instrumental, i.e. doing harm to gain such ends as money or power. What makes this kind evil not the goal as such but the means used to achieve it. Examples include killing someone for money, governments using torture to maintain power, invading other countries to gain access to wealth and resources (good thing that doesn't happen any more, huh?).

According to Baumeister, violent means are chosen because the individual or group "does not think that more legitimate means will be successful. Violent and evil means often do furnish short-term, limited success, but in the long run they do not reliably furnish the material benefits they were intended to bring. At best, violence seems to be an effective tool for creating and sustaining power relationships."

EGOTISM AND REVENGE. Baumeister's work challenges the idea that evil is caused by low self esteem. On the contrary, many violent individuals, groups, and countries have inflated but fragile self esteem and lash out violently whenever this is challenged.

As he puts it,"The people (or groups or countries) most prone to violence are the ones who are most susceptible to ego threats, especially those who have inflated, exalted opinions of themselves or whose normally high self-esteem does occasionally take a nosedive."

Does that sound familiar to anyone? I didn't think so.

Wounded egotism usually seeks a revenge that is all out of proportion to the original offence.

IDEALISM. As Bob Dylan said, "you don't count the dead when God's on your side." When people think they are on the side of good and their enemies are evil, they feel morally justified in using extreme violence and cruelty. This is the old "end justifies the means" approach.

"Human nature inclines people to align themselves in groups that square off against each other, each group seeing itself as good and the other as bad. Group competition can evolve into brutal conflict in which each side sincerely sees itself as the good guys who need to take strong measures to defeat the forces of evil that oppose them."

No need for mercy when you're on the side of the angels.

Does that sound familiar to anybody? I didn't think so either. Lucky for us that never happens.

HOW IT STARTS. Unlike the Greek goddess Athena, evil doesn't appear full grown in the world. It starts with a loss of self- or social control. "Many instances of profound evil begin with a small, ambiguous act that crosses a fuzzy line and then escalates gradually into even greater levels of violence."

For example, the Ku Klux Klan began with a group of bored young mean seeking amusement by mischief and practical jokes. The Nazi holocaust came at the end of a long progression of gradually escalating abuses. Often, Nazi leaders would pause at each stage to gauge world reaction before escalating violence.

GROUPS. People taken one at a time are fairly harmless, but aggregation into groups multiplies the potentially for evil exponentially. "The crowd is untruth," according to Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.

For Freud, any group was a potential herd or mob: "when individuals come together in a group all their individual inhibitions fall away and all the cruel, brutal and destructive instincts, which lie dormant in individuals as relics of a primitive epoch, are stirred up to find free gratification."

Baumeister doesn't go quite that far but affirms that "In groups, especially, evil escalates as the members bring out one another's worst impulses, lose track of individual responsibility, and reinforce one another's wavering faith in the broad justifications for what they are doing."

There's no magic bullet to make evil go away, but understanding it is a good first step and Baumeister's work is a good place to start. Self control, and helping people learn to achieve it, is obviously important. Maybe it's more important to remember that a good society is one where different individuals, groups, and systems limit the amount of harm the others can do. Call it checks and balances or countervailing power or anything you want, but we always need it.

It's not that people are inherently evil: in our imperfection, we can't even achieve that. But the potential for evil is always there--and not just in the Other.


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