What is the essence of evil, and which part of the human soul gives birth to it?
This is one of the most difficult questions for civilized man. Many of us can recognize the results of evil intuitively: evil causes vast human suffering; revokes our sense of human dignity; creates an ugly, dystopian, or disharmonic world; destroys beauty and poetry; perpetuates fear, anger, distress and terror; causes torture and bloodshed. Nevertheless, there are always some people who seem to remain ignorant of its presence — or, incredibly, see specific visceral atrocities as justified and even good.
Those of us who have taken a stand for freedom over the past few years know instinctively that a great evil has occurred. Millions of people have lost their livelihoods, fallen into depression and committed suicide, suffered indignities at the hands of public health authorities and bureaucrats, died or suffered unnecessarily in hospitals or from experimental gene therapies marketed as vaccines, were denied the ability to say goodbye to their loved ones or celebrate important holidays and milestones…were denied, in short, the meaningful experiences that make us human.
To those of us who suffered directly, or who saw our highest values suddenly dismissed and decreed expendable, we feel that evil in our bones and we know that it is there, still hanging over our heads, as the world keeps turning and others, incredibly, go about as if nothing had ever happened.
But from whence does such evil come, and who is ultimately responsible for it? This is a harder question to answer, and there is much debate surrounding it. Is evil the result of conscious, willful intent? Or is it a side effect of something that was originally more benign?
Should we feel compassion for people who were “just doing their job,” and in so doing, became the tools of injustice? Should we excuse ignorance, or cowardice? Do the perpetrators of evil generally have “good intentions,” but make honest mistakes or succumb to selfishness, greed, habit, or blind obedience? And if this last scenario is the case, how much lenience should we allow them, and how accountable should we hold them to be for their actions?
I will not attempt to answer all these questions here; these are for the reader to contemplate. What I would like to do instead is to look at various perspectives on the psychology of what gives rise to evil, and to attempt to extract from these disparate notions the common thread that ties them together. Hopefully this will help us to understand our own experiences better, and explain the nuanced forces that gave rise to them.
How Do We Intuit Evil? Intent and Rationale
Evil presents a difficult problem for philosophy because it is a largely intuitive concept. There is no objective definition of “evil” that everyone agrees on, even though there may be things we as humans (almost) universally recognize as such.
We seem to know evil when we see it, but its essence is harder to pin down. Psychologist Roy Baumeister frames evil as inherently tied to human social dynamics and relationships. In his book, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, he writes:
“Evil exists primarily in the eye of the beholder, especially in the eye of the victim. If there were no victims there would be no evil. True, there are victimless crimes (for example, many traffic violations), and presumably victimless sins, but they exist as marginal categories of something that is defined mainly by the doing of harm […] If victimization is the essence of evil, then the question of evil is a victim’s question. Perpetrators, after all, do not need to search for explanations of what they have done. And bystanders are merely curious or sympathetic. It is the victims who are driven to ask, why did this happen?”
As early as the late 6th century to early 5th century BC, the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus had also intuited the idea of evil as a uniquely human phenomenon, when he mused (fragment B102): “To God all things are fair and good and just, but men hold some things wrong and some right.”
The processes of the natural world are impersonal and follow predictable laws. We may not always like these physical forces, but we are all equally subordinate to them. On the other hand, the world of humans is a malleable world subject to the competition of whims; its moral justice is a human set of affairs to be negotiated among humans.
If we conceptualize evil as a product of human interactions, then, the first question to arise is the question of intent. Do people who commit evil acts consciously plan, and want to harm, others? Moreover, to what extent does it really matter?
According to consequentialist ethics, it is the outcome of one’s actions that is the most important for judging morality, not intention. However, at least in Western societies, intent seems to play a large role in how harshly we judge people for immoral actions.
This is perhaps most evident in our legal system: we classify the severity of crimes such as murder into categories based on how much intent and planning was involved. “First-degree” murder, the most serious, is premeditated; “second-degree” murder is intentional but unplanned; and “manslaughter,” the least serious of the crimes, happens as an unintentional byproduct of an altercation (“voluntary manslaughter”) or an accident (“involuntary manslaughter”).
If you grew up in an industrialized Western nation, chances are you see this as relatively just; the more intent there is involved, the more evil we see, and we hate to see otherwise “good people” punished for unfortunate accidents or lapses in judgment.
But it’s more complex than that. Even with regard to intentional evil, cultures across the world tend to ascribe less blame when they think the perpetrator has a relatable rationale for their actions.
Among these “mitigating factors” are self-preservation or self-defense, necessity, insanity, ignorance, or differing moral values. In a study on the role of intentions in moral judgment, in fact, people often completely excused, or even approved of, perpetrators who committed harm out of self-defense or necessity in particular.
So it’s clear that not only intent, but rationale, does matter in terms of how we conceptualize “evil.” If we think that someone has a good reason for what they’re doing, we are more sympathetic and less likely to see their actions as evil — regardless of what the outcome is.
But this creates two major problems for the analysis of evil: on the one hand, it encourages us to define “true evil” in an overly -narrow and simplistic way; conversely, it may lead us to downplay the “evil intent” of perpetrators with mundane rationales or justifications for their actions. Both fallacies, as I will attempt to show here, blind us to the true essence of evil.
Irrational Evil: The “Cartoon Villain” Archetype
In keeping with the Western paradigm of moral judgment, the “purest” form of evil is an evil that is both intentional and seemingly irrational. This is the type of evil we see embodied in the cartoon villain. In the 1980s, psychologists Petra Hesse and John Mack taped 20 episodes of the eight most highly-rated children’s cartoons of the time and analyzed how they presented the concept of evil. As Roy Baumeister recounts:
“The villains have no clear reason for their attacks. They seem to be evil for evil’s sake, and they have been so all along. They are sadistic: they derive pleasure from hurting others, and they celebrate, rejoice, or laugh with pleasure when they hurt or kill someone, especially if the victim is a good person […] Apart from the joy of creating harm and chaos, these villains seem to have little motive.”
The cartoon villain archetype confronts us with a psychological paradox. On the one hand, such incomprehensible evil is existentially horrifying, and we don’t want to believe it can occur in real life. So we tend to dismiss it as belonging to the realm of fairy tales.
But at the same time, we find its simplicity alluring. It is a story told from the victim’s perspective. It inherently sets us — the “good people,” of course — apart from the grotesque monsters of the world, by framing them as impenetrable aberrances with a single-minded focus on destroying us.
The cartoon villain caricature fits perfectly into the simplistic, dramatic narrative of the “hero-victim-villain” triangle, in which the “villain” embodies pure, sadistic evil; the “victim” embodies innocence and blamelessness; and the “hero” is a valiant savior with purely altruistic intentions.
The “hero-victim-villain” triangle — also known as the “Karpman Drama Triangle” — reduces the messy, uncomfortable complexity of moral decision-making to a safe and somewhat deterministic simplicity. It implies a light sense of fatalism.
We all have predetermined roles stemming from our inherent qualities: the hero and the victim are “blameless” and incapable of wrongdoing, while the villain is an unsalvageable monster who deserves whatever punishment awaits him. It removes the sense of responsibility attached to making difficult moral choices, often under pressure, in an ambiguous world. Our role is merely to get on stage and play our part.
But as Alexander Solzhenitsyn wryly wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who among us is willing to destroy a piece of their own heart?”
The truth is nuanced. The sadistic cartoon villain archetype does, in fact, exist; pure evil is not a myth. In fact, Baumeister counts “sadistic pleasure” among one of the four major root causes of evil. But it’s also true that such people are extremely rare, even among psychopaths and criminals. Baumeister estimates that only about 5-6% percent of perpetrators (note: not the general population) fall into this category.
It does seem right to assume that the cartoon villain archetype is a highly “distilled” form of evil. But equating “evil intent” with irrational sadism excludes all but society’s most aberrant monsters — sadistic serial killers like Tommy Lynn Sells, for example. If Baumeister’s estimate is correct, such a narrow definition fails to explain the vast majority (94-95% percent) of the world’s evil.
Furthermore, even many true sadists likely have subtle rationales for their acts — for example, they may enjoy the feeling of power their crimes elicit, or they may wish to provoke an extreme emotional response in someone else. At this point we risk splitting hairs; very few people would probably see such a rationale as a “mitigating factor” for moral blame.
But it does raise the question: can we really separate “evil intent” from “rationality” at all? If even sadistic cartoon villains pursue subtle instrumental goals, maybe evil has less to do with whether or not a rational goal exists and more to do with how an individual chooses to pursue those goals. Maybe by examining the intersection between goal-seeking behavior and evil deeds, we can refine our perspective.
Rational Evil and the Intent Spectrum
Philosopher Hannah Arendt is perhaps most famous for exploring the rational motivations for evil in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. Watching the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the man who coordinated the transportation of Jews to the concentration camps under Hitler’s Final Solution directive, she was struck by the impression that Eichmann was a very “normal” man — not the kind of person you would expect to facilitate the horrific extermination of millions of people.
He at least claimed that he did not even hate the Jews, and at times demonstrated outrage at stories of their cruel treatment; he seemed to love his family; he had a strong sense of personal duty and considered it honorable to perform one’s job well. He had performed his own odious task with zeal, not because he necessarily believed in the cause, but because he claimed it was his ethical duty to follow the law and work hard, and because he wanted to advance his career.
Arendt referred to this phenomenon as the “banality of evil.” Variations on this concept highlight the often mundane motivations that drive otherwise “normal” people to commit (or participate in) atrocities. These motivations may be relatively inoffensive, benign or even honorable in other contexts.
Roy Baumeister breaks them down into three main categories: practical instrumentalism in pursuit of a goal (such as power or material gain); self-preservation in response to a (real or perceived) ego-threat; and idealism. None of these ends are evil in and of themselves; they become evil due to the means used to accomplish them, and the context and extent to which they are pursued.
Rational evil varies highly in the degree of intent that drives it. On one end of the spectrum lies ignorance, while at the other end lies something approaching the cartoon villain archetype — a cold, calculating, amoral utilitarianism. Below I’ll explore the range of forms that rational evil can take on this spectrum, as well as the logic by which we assign blame or responsibility.
Expectations for Ignorance
At the lowest end of the intent spectrum lies ignorance. There is a great deal of debate over the extent to which ignorance should be held responsible for evil; according to the authors of the moral intent study mentioned above, people in Western industrialized societies tend to absolve ignorance of wrongdoing more often than members of rural traditionalist societies.
In an interview with Live Science, lead author, anthropologist H. Clark Barrett, said the Himba and the Hadza peoples in particular judged group harm scenarios like poisoning a water supply “maximally bad […] regardless of whether you did it on purpose or by accident […] People said things like, ‘Well, even if you do it by accident, you should not be so careless.’”
Socrates took things a bit further. Not only did he not excuse ignorance, but he believed it to be the origin of all evil. Speaking through Plato’s Protagoras dialogue, he declared:
“No one chooses evil or refuses the good except through ignorance. This explains why cowards refuse to go to war: — because they form a wrong estimate of good, and honour, and pleasure. And why are the courageous willing to go to war? — because they form the right estimate of pleasures and pains, of things terrible and not terrible. Courage then is knowledge, and cowardice is ignorance.”
That is, in Socrates’ view, evil is not the result primarily of bad intentions, but of a lack of courage to seek the truth, which results in ignorance and bad decision-making. Ignorant and cowardly people with perhaps good intentions commit evil acts, because they have an incomplete or erroneous picture of what is right and wrong. But ignorance and cowardice are moral weaknesses.
The implication here is that all humans have a responsibility to try to understand the world beyond themselves and their own effect on it, or to try to understand what constitutes true virtue. After all, the human brain is the most powerful tool on the planet; shouldn’t we learn the power of our own thoughts and actions and how to avoid using them recklessly and carelessly?
This is part of the training that parents typically give to their children, limiting the extent to which they can exert their will on the world until they have internalized certain concepts about respectful boundaries between themselves and others.
Even in Western societies, where people often excuse ignorance, this logic still holds sway under the legal principle of ignorantia juris non excusat (“ignorance of the law is no excuse”). In most scenarios, lack of awareness of a law does not protect a person from liability for violating it. While “mistake of fact” may legally excuse wrongdoing under some circumstances, the mistake must still be considered “reasonable,” and this excuse does not apply to cases of strict liability.
It seems, then, that most of us expect a “minimum level of attentiveness” to one’s environment and the needs of others, below which ignorance ceases to excuse bad behavior. Individuals will differ on exactly where they choose to place this threshold; but wherever it lies, that’s where “unfortunate accidents” end and “the banality of evil” begins.
Good Intentions Gone Wrong
Slightly farther up the intent spectrum lie those who are generally conscientious and empathic, who are relatively concerned about the welfare of others, but who rationalize or justify actions that would normally contradict their values.
These people intend to commit the acts they commit, and may even be aware of some of the consequences, but they genuinely believe those actions to be good or justified. Psychologist Albert Bandura refers to this self-deception process as “moral disengagement.” In his book Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves, he writes:
“Moral disengagement does not alter moral standards. Rather, it provides the means for those who morally disengage to circumvent moral standards in ways that strip morality from harmful behavior and their responsibility for it. However, in other aspects of their lives, they adhere to their moral standards. It is the selective suspension of morality for harmful activities that enables people to retain their positive self-regard while doing harm.”
Bandura details eight psychological mechanisms people use to morally disengage from the consequences of their actions. These include: sanctification (i.e., imbuing them with an elevated moral or social purpose); the use of euphemistic language (so as to obscure their unsavory nature); advantageous comparison (i.e. framing them as better than the alternative[s]); abdicating responsibility (to a higher authority); diffusing responsibility (within a bureaucracy or other faceless collective); minimization or denial (of negative consequences); dehumanization or “Othering” of the victim; and victim-blaming.
These tactics help people who are concerned with morality, and who need to see themselves as basically “good people,” to resolve cognitive dissonance when they make exceptions to their own rules. While they can certainly be invoked by conscious manipulators with antisocial tendencies, they are often engaged subconsciously by completely “normal,” empathic people. Bandura tells the story of Lynndie England, a soldier who participated in the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib:
“A friendly young woman who always aimed to please others, [she] became the public face of the prisoner abuse scandal because she posed for many of the photographs. Her family and friends were shocked by the sight of what England had become: ‘It’s so not her. It’s not in her nature to do something like that. There’s not a malicious bone in her body’ (Dao, 2004).”
She insisted she felt no guilt because she had been “following orders” (abdicating responsibility) and summarized the whole affair as a “sad love story” (minimization). Even years later, she claimed the prisoners “got the better end of the deal” (advantageous comparison) and said the only thing she felt sorry about was “losing people on [the American] side because of [her] coming out on a picture” (dehumanization of the Other). Though her friends and family had seen her as a good and otherwise normal person, she was able to participate in extreme and vile atrocities because she perceived rational justifications for them.
The “Banality of Evil” and Criminal Responsibility
There is a perception that rational evil lacks conscious awareness or willful intent; that it is merely an unfortunate side effect of practical goal-seeking and therefore, somehow, less overtly evil.
This tendency to separate rationality from responsibility — as well as from evil intent itself — is what leads people like Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler, to reject the idea of the “banality of evil” altogether. In a polemic in Observer, he calls Hannah Arendt’s conceptualization “a sophisticated form of denial […] Not denying the crime [of the Holocaust] but denying the full criminality of the perpetrators.”
Rosenbaum, who vehemently asserts the role of conscious choice in evil, assumes that the “banality of evil” implies passivity, and therefore that it minimizes the criminal agency of Nazis like Adolf Eichmann. He insists:
“[The Holocaust] was a crime committed by fully responsible, fully engaged human beings, not unthinking automatons shuffling paper, unaware of the horror they were perpetrating, merely carrying out orders to maintain regularity and discipline…”
But Hannah Arendt herself would not have disagreed with this; she did not see rational motivations as synonymous with passive unawareness or a lack of criminal agency. In fact, her point was precisely the opposite — the “banality of evil” is that “evil intent” is not merely sadism for the sake of sadism; rather, it is an intentional choice to pursue one’s goals at increasingly high costs to other people.
On the lower end of the intent spectrum, this may manifest as the self-preservation instinct; “good people” with “good intentions” turn a blind eye to injustice or follow orders in order to keep their jobs and feed their families. They cling to comfortable illusions to protect themselves from this disquieting truth: that when push comes to shove, they would sacrifice another to save themselves.
Self-preservation, at least, is one of the highest priorities possible for man. When we go into crisis mode, it kicks in and often overrides our highest spiritual ideals. People on the lower end of the intent spectrum will not harm others until their own highest priorities are threatened — and even when they do, they try to participate as little as possible.
But Adolf Eichmann was not this kind of person, and Hannah Arendt knew that. He may not have “loved” the job of genocide, as Rosenbaum suggests; more likely, he saw it coldly as a means to an end. But neither was he “sullenly” following orders. He was perfectly willing to organize the logistics — facilitating horrific atrocities against millions of people — in exchange for the comparatively trivial reward of career success. This is the definition of criminal agency, the definition of evil intent.
Adolf Eichmann, and others like him, can be plotted at the higher end of the intent spectrum, where rational evil starts to blur toward sadism. This is where empathy no longer holds self-interest in check; here lies the rational, calculating evil and cold moral indifference of the Dark Triad.
Rational, Amoral Evil: The Dark Triad of Personality
The Dark Triad refers to a collection of three personality traits — narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism — that drive people to willingly sacrifice others in pursuit of their rational goals. People with one or more of these traits tend to be calculating and manipulative, have low empathy, and/or may lack a moral compass entirely. They may have one of the Cluster B personality disorders (antisocial, borderline, histrionic or narcissistic), but they also may be relatively “normal” people who would not meet a clinical diagnosis.
The hallmark of these people is that moral ideals concern them very little. They may even enjoy crossing red lines, deceiving others or inflicting harm. But at the end of the day, they are not true sadists; their motivations are still “banal” in the sense that they are goal-oriented and utilitarian. Harming others is mostly a means to an end; but crucially, it is a means they do not shy away from, and may strategically and even intricately premeditate.
These people can be quite dangerous. They are often smart enough to hide their true intentions. They can be charming, and despite a lack of empathy, may be very good at reading others. Because these people are willing to go to such great lengths to achieve their goals, and because they often possess desirable leadership qualities, they tend to rise to high ranks in the social power hierarchy. They are found in high proportions in politics, journalism and media, business, medicine, and other professions associated with money, power and influence.
It’s hard to know exactly how prevalent these personalities are in society as a whole. Machiavellianism is particularly difficult to measure because it is characterized by manipulative behavior. But because the Dark Triad personality traits exist on a spectrum and are often subclinical, the percentage could be quite high.
The prevalence of clinical narcissistic personality disorder alone is estimated to be as high as 6 percent% of the population. Prevalence of true psychopathy is estimated at between 1-4.5 percent%, but some research suggests that up to 25-30% percent of people may have subclinical levels of one or more psychopathic traits.
What differentiates people with Dark Triad personalities from people on the lower end of the intent spectrum is how far they are willing to go to achieve their goals. Lacking empathy — or at least, being able to turn it off — allows them to sacrifice increasingly higher priorities of others in exchange for increasingly trivial priorities of their own. And this quality may, in fact, represent the true essence of evil itself, from ignorance on one end of the spectrum to sadism on the other. It is known as the “dark core” of personality, or the “D-factor.”
The D-Factor: A Unifying Theory of Evil
A group of researchers from Germany and Denmark claim the “dark core” of personality is the unifying essence behind the human “shadow.” They argue that the “Dark Triad” traits, as well as sadism, moral disengagement, selfishness, and other masks of human nastiness, are all explained by the “D-factor,” which they define as follows:
“The fluid concept of D captures individual differences in the tendency to maximize one’s individual utility — disregarding, accepting, or malevolently provoking disutility for others — , accompanied by beliefs that serve as justifications.”
The dark core or D-factor accounts for extreme personality disorders, pure sadism or the “cartoon villain” archetype, the entire spectrum of rational evil including ignorance, and even the most benign, everyday instances of self-serving behavior:
“Of note, the extent to which individuals high in D are concerned about others’ disutility can vary […] Whereas some high in D may maximize their own utility hardly even noticing the negative consequences for other people [ignorance], others may be aware of — but not held back by — the disutility inflicted on other people, and still others might actually derive immediate utility for themselves (e.g., pleasure) from disutility inflicted on other people [sadism].”
The D-factor unifies the diverse manifestations of evil, explaining them as a function of a common, human cause. It explains evil not as a mere psychological aberrance or personality quirk, but as the extreme end of a priority spectrum that is normally kept in check by empathy. It measures the extent to which an individual is willing to sacrifice others’ priorities in order to achieve their goals. This is what the victim perceives as unjust or even “evil.”
But there is another element that I would add to this, and that is what Roy Baumeister calls the “magnitude gap.” He writes:
“A central fact about evil is the discrepancy between the importance of the act to the perpetrator and to the victim. This can be called the magnitude gap. The importance of what takes place is almost always much greater for the victim than for the perpetrator […] To the perpetrator, it is often a very small thing.”
One of the hardest questions in the study of evil is distinguishing between “victims” and “perpetrators.” In a world of individuals with often-conflicting desires and goals, it is to some extent inevitable that we will sacrifice others’ priorities — especially when their utility provokes our disutility in return. It cannot, therefore, inherently be selfish or antisocial to prioritize our own utility over the utility of others. But where should we draw the line?
Not all priorities are created equal, and not all victims are truly victims; for example, transwomen who insist on the right to have sex with lesbians prioritize their own roleplaying fantasies above the sexual autonomy of women. Thus they demand that others sacrifice incredibly high priorities in order to satisfy comparatively trivial priorities of their own. Though they play the victim, they are the true bullies.
In a shared reality where individuals’ priorities are bound to conflict, peaceful coexistence means negotiating some sort of hierarchy, a system by which some priorities and goals give way to others. In general, lower priorities for one person should give way to higher priorities for another.
But this is a subjective and relational process; there is no objective way to figure out whose priority should trump whose. It is at heart a diplomatic, value-oriented question that requires mutual respect and understanding among the parties involved. Evil, in a sense, represents a breakdown of those negotiations; it is a unilateral decision by one party to deprioritize and actively subjugate the goals of another.
This is why individual freedom is so important. When freedom reigns, each of us can try to pursue our priorities while negotiating with each other in real -time on where to draw the boundaries. Freedom allows for adaptability, creative problem- solving, and nuanced, individually-tailored solutions, increasing the probability that everyone has a chance to pursue their goals.
A free society doesn’t make sweeping, top-down judgments on whose priorities should supersede whose; this is not the kind of judgment we have the objective tools to make. On the contrary, this is a subjective philosophical question that has never been definitively resolved (and likely never will be).
Top-down, centralized control inevitably subjugates all priorities — no matter how important — to the capricious whims of the most powerful social factions. At best it is a deplorable display of philosophical hubris; at worst, it is a vicious, animalistic mob tyranny. This is, absolutely, by definition, evil.
Over the past few years, this is exactly what happened to many of us. Powerful forces in society unilaterally decided that many of our highest priorities — feeding ourselves and our families, experiencing social connection, exercising, worshiping and connecting with nature — many of these things vital to our health and even survival — suddenly didn’t matter anymore.
There was no negotiation. There was no attempt to figure out how we could all get what we wanted — creative solutions, like the Great Barrington Declaration, were sabotaged and vilified. We were simply told: your priorities are worth sacrificing. And all this over a virus that doesn’t even threaten most people’s lives.
Most likely, this evil was perpetrated by people from across the intent spectrum, at different levels and in different sectors of the social body. Some were driven by cowardice and ignorance. Others genuinely believed they were doing what was right. Still others were calculating psychopaths and even sadists who just don’t care who suffers in their pursuit of power, profit, pleasure and control.
The truth about evil is nuanced. It is a complex concept that manifests in many different ways. But underlying it is a commonality, a lack of compassion and respect and a failure to negotiate the hierarchy of priorities that loving, empathic humans work creatively to construct. It is a failure of collaboration and of imagination, a failure to engage in building shared realities and bridging common ground. It may be hateful and sadistic, cold and calculating, or it may simply be cowardly and ignorant; but it comes from the same universally human place.
And maybe knowing that, while it won’t erase the pain, will help us feel less powerless in its shadow, and give us the courage and the tools to stand up and face it.