Evidence of Evil

The evil do not serenely bear the trial of being displeasing to themselves. In fact, they do not 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. They are, for instance, in my experience, remarkably greedy people. Thus they are cheap – so cheap that their “gifts” may be murderous. In The Road Less Traveled, I suggested the most basic sin is laziness. In the next subsection I suggest it may be pride – because all sins are reparable except the sin of believing one is without sin. But perhaps the question of which sin is the greatest is, on a certain level, a moot issue. All sins betray – and isolate us from – both the divine and our fellow creatures. As one deep religious thinker put it, any sin ‘can harden into hell.’

A predominant characteristic, however, of the behavior of those I call evil is scapegoating. Because in their hearts they consider themselves above reproach, they 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 Grand-mommy 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. 

Scapegoating works through a mechanism psychiatrists call projection. Since the evil, deep down, feel themselves to be faultless, it is inevitable that when they are in conflict with the world they will invariably perceive the conflict to be 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. 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 the people I label as evil are chronic scapegoaters. In The Road Less Traveled I defined evil “as the exercise of political power – that is, the imposition of one’s will upon others by overt and covert coercion – in order to avoid … spiritual growth” (p. 279). In other words, the evil attack others instead of facing their own failures. 

The words “image,” “appearance,” and “outwardly” are crucial to understanding the morality of 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. That is why they are the “people of the lie.

Actually, the lie is designed not so much to deceive others as too 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 know 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.

Naturally, since it is designed to hide its opposite, the pretense chosen by the evil is most commonly the pretense of love.  

Any experienced psychotherapist knows that unloving parents abound, and that the vast majority of such parents maintain at least some degree of a loving pretense. Surely they do not deserve the designation of evil! I suppose not. I suppose that it is a matter of degree, that in consonance with Martin Buber’s two types of myths, there are the “falling” and the “fallen.” I do not know exactly where to draw the line between them. I do know, however, that Mr. and Mrs. R had crossed it. 

First there is the matter of the degree to which they were willing to sacrifice Roger for the preservation of their narcissistic self-image. There seemed to be no lengths to which they would not go. It bothered them not at all to think of him as a “generic criminal” – to blandly offer him up to the designation of hopeless, incurable, and malformed as a defense against my suggestion that they themselves needed therapy. I sensed no limit to their willingness to use him as a scapegoat if necessary. 

Then there is also the degree – the depth and distortion – of their lying. Mrs. R wrote: “I wanted to let you know that we have followed your advice and have sent Roger to boarding school.” What an extraordinary statement! It says that I advised them to take Roger out of St. Thomas when I specifically advised against such action. It states that they followed my advice when they specifically did not; my primary advice was that they themselves seek therapy. Finally, it implies that they did what they did because I advised it when, in fact, they considered my advice irrelevant. Not one lie, not even two lies, but three lies, all twisted around each other in a single short sentence. It is, I suppose, a form of genius that one can almost admire for its perversity.”

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 dominion 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. 

Evil was defined as the use of power to destroy the spiritual growth of others for the purpose of defending and preserving the integrity of our own sick selves. In short, it is scapegoating. We scapegoat not the strong but the weak. For the evil to so misuse their power, they must have the power to use it in the first place. They must have some kind of dominion over their victims. The most common relationship of dominion is that of parent over child. Children are weak, defenseless, and trapped in relation to their parents. They are born in thrall to their parents. It is no wonder, then, that the majority of the victims of evil are children. They are simply not free or powerful enough to escape.

The reality of the matter is that the naming of evil is still in a primitive stage. Be that as it may, the time is right, I believe, for psychiatry to recognize a distinct new type of personality disorder to encompass those I have named evil. In addition to the abrogation of responsibility that characterizes 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. 

Stress is the test for goodness. The truly good are they who in times 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. As I have said elsewhere, “one measure- and perhaps the best measure – of a person’s greatness is the capacity for suffering.

M. SCOTT PECK, M.D., People of the Lie