Evil is the most extreme form of malevolence. Evil contains maliciously ill-fitting and unsuitable behaviour towards others. An implicit deeply immoral implication is always implied. Although evil is probably an inexhaustible topic, here are a few key insights.
Just like malevolence, evil is a developed state and not a one-off experience or action. It describes the most serious disregard for people’s wellbeing as the psychological and emotional suffering of others is a minor consideration. This disregard can be for several reasons. Sometimes it’s due to internal psychological conflicts that are traumatic enough to preoccupy people continually, so leaving them no free attention for considering another’s view. In other cases, the neural architecture of a person could be most responsible – a sort of high-functioning autism. A mixture of both of these factors is also theoretically possible. Nonetheless, a severely restricted ability to sympathise and empathise is permanently associated with evil actions.
Likewise, evil actions are highly associated with people commonly referred to as psychopaths. Psychopaths are people who have an intellectual disconnect from their emotions, and especially the higher social emotions. They are typically very intelligent, and they can conceive plans and ideas of great intricacy. Also, their intellectual prowess means that they can recognise patterns of behaviour that are deemed acceptable or unacceptable by society, so recognising conforming behaviours enables them to cast a semblance of normality over their behaviour and the morality with which this implies.
A psychopath’s decisions are not based on emotions like normal people. As emotions are our motivations to do things and not to do things based upon an evolution of morality, being disconnected from emotions is a most serious problem for the individual and society as a whole. The average psychopath does things because they are accepted, to advantage themselves, rather than because they feel it’s the right thing to do. This also means they decide not to do things because others deem the behaviour unacceptable. Psychopaths see the possible disadvantageous consequences to their potential success rather than instinctively feel actions are wrong.
The inability to feel emotions, or being extremely hindered in doing so, means that psychopaths do not empathise or sympathise well. As they cannot imagine what the suffering will feel like for their victims, psychopaths can do extremely malicious things that create massive suffering and despair.
In extreme situations, when it’s considered more acceptable to “do whatever it takes” to win, a psychopath’s actions are more readily seen as immoral. Their internal frame of reference, built on the advantageous reactions of others regarding what is acceptable or unacceptable in a moderate environment, is no longer relevant. They haven’t any reference to make adequate decisions in the new extreme environment. Anything that affects the morale of the people is a moral issue, and psychopaths have a very restricted ability to judge how morale is affected. Many psychopaths go unnoticed in society until they meet an extreme situation and do something shocking. In a wartime scenario, where most people do whatever is needed to stop opposing forces, psychopaths could be responsible for a massive atrocity whilst being unaware of how barbaric and inhumane their actions have been.
In this respect, the subjective attitude of an evil person can be more like supreme intellectual superiority with a strong conviction that others are foolishly motivated by emotions. Feelings and emotions can intellectually get in the way of “the cause”. This description is like one of a megalomaniac persona (James Bond villains are based on psychopaths) where people are selfish, or narcissistic, because they perceive everyone else as drastically inferior to themselves. This is a very common take on the psychopathic mind.
Nevertheless, it’s only responsible to note that a person can become a sadistic psychopath and then learn to feel again. A famous example of such a rare situation is the case of a six-and-a-half-year-old girl called Beth in the documentary Child of Rage1. Beth and her brother are adopted by a Methodist priest and his wife in 1984. After a couple of months, they learn of the neglect the children suffered, and it makes sense of some of their behaviour. Beth repeatedly hurts her brother by sticking pins in him, without remorse, while explaining explicitly her extremely malicious intentions. She molests and hurts the private parts of her younger brother, yet she does not refrain even when he pleads with her to stop. Beth’s behaviour escalates. Because she is found to be sneaking out of her room in the middle of the night and punching her brother in the stomach, her parents realise they have to tie her bedroom door shut while they sleep. Several times she tries to kill her brother and is stopped. Beth openly tells her adoptive parents her intentions to stab them in their sleep with a knife from the kitchen drawer. She wants to do it at night so they can’t see her do it, but they can feel her do it, she says.
Beth explains her intended actions to a clinical psychologist in video-taped therapy sessions without any attempt to deceive or conceal. She wants to kill her brother and both adoptive parents. Beth relates her intentions like normal facts and with only a modest amount of shyness. Although vague signs of subconscious resistance appear as traumatic experiences are referred to and remembered, no intense emotions are felt or expressed.
Beth’s biological mother died when she was one year old. The psychologist discovers that she has nightmares of a man falling on her with a part of himself, and that it hurts her. Over time it becomes clear that Beth was neglected, like her brother, but she had also been sexually abused. It becomes apparent that she needs specialist help. She was relocated to live with a professional couple, who specialised in working with seriously abused children with attachment issues, at their retreat. Beth receives round the clock attention for every aspect of her life. In time, the professional attention helps Beth and she slowly is able to feel the emotions connected to her actions. Five years later in 1989, Beth has integrated into her community. She is asked, in front of a video camera, about the violent things she used to do to her brother. As she talks of the malicious actions of several years ago, she clearly experiences sadness, regret and remorse and then starts to cry before taking comfort in a cuddle.
This is an astonishing example of the psychological transition of a young person into a sadistically psychopathic state, driven by subconscious rage, and the emergence from that state to one where she can feel appropriate emotions.
Nowadays we know that a critical time for developing sound emotional expressions is the first 4-years of life, and the bond and affectionate exchanges between a mother and her child in these years is now shown to be the most critical factor in developing sound emotional responses. Over 60-years of evidence-based research by hundreds of professionals in Attachment Theory and the 30-year results of a most emininent longitundal study prove beyond doubt that the consequences of maladaptive attachment behaviours from neglect and abuse are a, if not the, major cause of behavioural problems rooted in emotional dysfunction. The research also shows how specific anxious attachment styles are associated with criminality, alcohol and drug abuse as well as how dissociative thought disorders are created. Dissociative thought disorders are what most people would recognise to be behind evil psychopathic-like actions. Just as the Child of Rage documentary does, the research clealy shows that children can recover, yet it also explicitly describes in what type of circumstances transformation happens.
Two thousand years ago, Beth may well have been killed as “an agent of Satan” or something similar. In the twenty-first century, if there was no intervention for a child like Beth at a young age, it’s possible that she would now be an adult people refer to as evil or perhaps in an institutional psychiatric unit and medicated into a catatonic state.
A concept similar to “an agent of Satan” may have been present in Islamic and Christian influenced environments for a few thousand years, yet the word evil with its current meaning is hundreds of years old rather than thousands of years old. If people would think of an extremely malicious action as a positive thing, and so encourage intense moral corruption, they would be considered evil.
As the word evil conjures up evocative images, it is difficult to use without fazing people. People overly associate the word with religion and depictions of the devil. Many people fear the word evil itself, so they experience minor emotional shock-like tremors when the word is used.
Because of this automatic fearful reaction, people use the word evil to mar, slur or taint the image of others. The word evil can be used to mar person B, by person A. Hence, ironically being an indication of person A’s malicious motive. It can be very difficult to use the word evil without it conjuring images of religious philosophy and propaganda. This can instil fear into the conversation inappropriately that’s accompanied by all the irrationality and volatility that comes with ideological fear.
These are reasons for using the older words malice and malevolence when describing actions with ill intent. They are both distinctive descriptions for relating the root of an ill-willed corrupting force. What is more, since focus remains on what has been said rather than diverting to fears regarding the devil, they form more accurate perceptions.
Due to its heavily associated religious connections, many people have built up a personal view of what is evil that’s based around religious iconography. This makes the evocative powers of the word evil tremendous. Extreme emotions, such as fury, can be elicited against the suggested evil thing as though the subject of the conversation were the very thing pre-concocted as evil. A construct of pure malice, of everything that is unacceptable, of everything that is wrong with the world, and everything that needs to be stamped out at all costs can be associated with the word evil.
Thus the word evil often hinders the flow of communication rather than aids it. The word is used to encourage people to hate someone rather than explain the reality of the situation. The word evil is commonly used by malicious people to manipulate others to hate.
Proto-Indo-European. Wap from Proto-Germanic. Ubilaz = bad, evil, unskilful, defective, harm, disease.
Old English. Yfele = bad, vicious, wicked, the antithesis of good in all its principal senses.
Middle English. Yfel = moral badness. Bad in a positive sense. (Bad takes the wider meanings of negative actions, and evil becomes focused on morally corrupt behaviour.)
1. Morally depraved, bad, wicked, vicious applied to a person.
2. The deliberate use of maliciousness or ill-will imposed on others for personal gain, pleasure or thrills (including ego-trips).