There are monsters among us. They are one of us and they are not one of us.
A pilot, depressive and narcissistic, learns that his flying for Germanwings will be curtailed by his medical condition. His problematic eyesight will end his career and kill his dream of captaining for Lufthansa. He enters history in suicide and mass murder.
An impressionable teenager, enthralled by his powerful older brother, absorbed in Islamic ideology and grievance, plants a homemade bomb in the midst of the crowd at the Boston Marathon. He walks away and triggers the fuse.
Why, even with a complexity of mitigating factors: medical, psychological, religious, familial, and cultural, do I say these men are evil. Why, as a clinician and scientist, do I still employ this ancient concept? Why is evil not reducible to sickness? In short, evil is a moral concept, sickness is a clinical concept, and I need moral language to express my utter outrage and indignation.
I don’t think evil is in us. Evil is not a substance. Nor do I see evil as something requiring theology. Gods and demons have nothing intrinsically to do with it. Evil is determined by the choice finally made. Saying that a choice is evil is to pass moral judgment, to engage in a Degradation Ceremony. Given what I hold most dear, and acting as a representative of my community, I may have reason to pass such judgment. I do this when the values violated are so significant that someone who can willingly and knowingly engage in such a violation is acting as someone alien to my community. In these circumstances, I have reason to speak of monsters.
Do I understand the behavior of these men to be a byproduct of psychiatric illness, ideology, personal weakness or social grudge? If the devil didn’t make them do it, if it wasn’t because of their depression, their ideology, or their big brother, then what did? What made them do it? The answer is nothing madethem do it. They did it. Their behavior can be understandable, even unsurprising, without it being caused by anything. An excuse is not a cause.
Insisting on questions of causality distorts our understanding of why people behave. We become confused when we reduce our understanding of behavior, no matter how problematic or strange, to causal explanation. If it was caused, can I truly be blamed? If it was caused, what choice did I actually have? Is it enough to say, “I’m depraved on account I’m deprived?” Better to recognize some people have their reasons, twisted and evil. Reasons aren’t causal. A person weighs their reasons.Reasons for or against a course of action are weighed against other reasons. The reasons that prevail indicate the character of the actor.
Still, when I think about Tsarnaev and Lubitz clinically, I wonder about narcissistic personality disorders, psychopathy, and depression. I wonder if they felt intense anger and shame evoked by loss, fear, and grievance. They may have suffered. They may have been subjected to indoctrination. I accept these potential facts as part of my understanding.
Nonetheless, to me, these are evil men.
Simply put, both morally and clinically, these two are persons who perpetrated evil. Persons are agents, and unless unconscious or under utter coercion, potentially deliberate actors, whose choices reflect their personalities. In the cases in question, evidence points to considerable planning and forethought: Bombs built and planted for maximum destruction; locked cockpit doors researched, cries ignored, and autopilots set to increase decent and speed.
But I would call these men evil even if what they did was unplanned, spur of the moment, and under extreme duress.
Why? I see no absence of a final choice. From the perspectives of these men, I believe they thought their behavior was self-justified. That’s why they’re evil. Are the circumstances that evoked or justified their deeds important? Of course, similar to the fact that adversity does not tend to bring out the best in us, but makes us mean. Could I argue that under enough stress, hardship, depression, and despair, all of us are capable of evil? I could, but I won’t, since the empirical evidence differs. We don’t all make such choices even in the worst of times. We don’t have it in us and this shows when push comes to shove by the values we actually enact.
Or I could simply say no; some of us, many of us, do not have an option to act with wanton, murderous intent and disregard for others. That option is simply not available, not a possibility given our character.When a Deliberate Action reflects wanton, malicious or murderous intent with disregard for the lives it effects, it’s a Paradigm Case of what I call evil. Violence, terrible and lethal, is not inherently evil given this paradigm. The soldier who kills within the rules of engagement or the police officer who shoots with proper recognition of the restrictions for lethal force does not fulfill the paradigm. (As a paradigm case, there is, however, a place for ambiguity and disagreement: the resistance fighter, violently acting to liberate his community, may seem righteous to some, evil to others. This may boil down to how one views the legitimacy of the communities in question and which side you’re on. And, at day’s end, we may have reason to label an entire community evil given its wanton, murderous intent: There are nazis with final solutions.)
Evil is not self-defense, nor is it a necessity. It is a name for a choice.
Choice is constrained by the options available. And options are limited by belief and circumstance. But short of utter and complete delusion or coercion, there is always the option to reconsider, resist, desist, refrain, or refuse at whatever cost. Choice is mitigated by circumstance but behavior does not follow from circumstance but from the personal characteristics of the actor in the circumstance.
Keep in mind: persons are agents, actors able to observe and critique their actions. There is no way around this if personal responsibility has any real meaning. Responsibility involves accountability for the choice actually made. This cannot be divorced from the personal characteristics of the actor who makes the choice.
Clinical language is appropriate when the goal is to avoid a moralistic stance of blame, or to facilitate empathy or, although with less accuracy, prediction. We appeal to clinical language when we examine the personal history of the character in question. This can help our understanding. It provides the mitigating facts. It facilitates psychotherapy, disclosure, and confession. We use clinical language to explore a performance under the guise of not being judgmental.
But at times judgment is called for. Clinical and moral language may cover the same performance but with different intent and significance. Moral language is appropriate when blame is at stake and where agency is treated as irreducibly given. Moral language is employed when we are judging a person’s place in our community. We employ concepts such as evil when we make the judgment that a person’s actions reveal they are not, and perhaps never were, one of us in good standing.
Personal characteristics revealed in an evil act are the characteristics we associate with monsters.
This is what moral language serves. It identifies evil, it isolates the monsters. The morality of those who make this identification appears in how they act toward those they identify as such. This includes the disposition to use such language. Isolating a monster is not the same as killing a monster. Identifying a behavior as evil is not the same as reducing the actor to someone essentially evil.
In the comment section below, Tony Putman points out the danger of seeing a single act as demonstrating character. He also asks me to consider the dangerous consequence of the label “monster”. Part of my response was developed earlier in “A Jury of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Peers”. In the dialog below, Tony, Greg Colvin, Clarke Stone, and Phillip Cartwright offer an unfolding and clarifying confrontation, identify problematic implications, and build an understanding, at least for me. I follow up my response with On the identification of monsters and evil. Further reflection on clinical and moral language.
On the nature of Degradation Ceremonies, deserved or not, I have written The Degradation Ceremonies of Everyday Life.
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I particularly liked your articulation of the concept of evil: “When a Deliberate Action reflects wanton, malicious or murderous intent with disregard for the lives it effects.” This anchors the concept on choice, and on what kind of reasons have what priority for the person. With that, we can then ask, “What pattern(s) of actions give us sufficient reason to say, ‘This person is evil’?” Which then helps with the other classical confusion: separating the person’s actions from the history that led them to being kind of person they are. None of that makes those determinations easy or simple, but it make them more practically possible.