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Evil Book Summary – Roy F. Baumeister Ph.D. and Aaron Beck

What you will learn from reading Evil:

– The essence of evil and it’s many forms.

– How rationalisation of actions can lead people to behave evilly.

– How ambiguity can lead to evil behaviour.

Evil Book Summary:

The book Evil by Roy Baumeister is a thorough analysis of the concept of Evil. It takes a different approach to most other books on this topic by trying to understand evil from the side of the perpetrator of evil. In doing so it reveals a lot about human nature and how evil manifests in human action. A must read for anyone who truly wants to understand how and why people can behave or become ‘evil’.


The Essence of the Book:

Roys’ goal in writing this book was to encourage, seduce, and perhaps trick you into seeing events from the perspective of the perpetrators of evil. Of course, identifying with evil is the first step toward perpetrating it, so it is necessary to step back out of that role once one is in it! The hardest part in understanding the nature of evil is to first recognise that you or I could, under certain circumstances, commit many of the acts that the world has come to regard as evil.

Evil usually enters the world unrecognised by the people who open the door and let it in. Most people who perpetrate evil do not see what they are doing as evil. 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.


The Abstraction of Evil:

Labels like Evil and the Enemy are actually abstractions. Assaulters, offenders, batterers, crusaders, perpetrators conjure up images of Evil and the Enemy they then project onto their opponent or antagonists—who are often weak and vulnerable. As Professor Baumeister points out: whoever opposes you or blocks your own good work is an Enemy of the Good and is therefore Evil.

Understanding evil begins with the realisation that we ourselves are capable of doing many of these things. Ordinary, normal people have done a great many evil things, and sometimes the majority of those present have acquiesced.

Evil is socially enacted and constructed. It does not reside in our genes or in our soul, but in the way we relate to other people.

Evil requires the deliberate actions of one person, the suffering of another, and the perception or judgment of either the second person or an observer. Very few people see their own actions as evil, and hardly any acts are regarded as evil if they do not bring harm, pain, or suffering to someone.


Predisposition vs Precipitation of Violence:

In examining violent behaviour it is also important to make a distinction between the predisposition to violence and the precipitation of violence.

At the level of the violent husband, a number of beliefs (many filtered down from higher levels) may converge to “prepare” him for violent action. Among these: 1. A wife who continually pesters her husband is a shrew 2. Nagging at her husband is a sign of disregard 3. The only way to shut her up is to punch her in the mouth; and at a less conscious level,

The precipitation of an assault may be related to “higher level” events such as economic instability leading to job insecurity leading to a greater sense of vulnerability, worry, and anxiety.


Violence and Cruelty:

Professor Baumeister also focuses sharply on the major causes of violence and cruelty, which he neatly organises into three categories.

The first is the desire for material gain (I would also include the lust for power and self-aggrandisement in this category).

Second is the threatening of high self-esteem. This is one of the most original of his ideas and is controversial as it was often believed low self esteem led to violence.  ‘When someone with an overblown sense of self-worth fears a threat to his self-esteem, a kind of reflexive hostility can result: Stop the threat before it inflicts damage.’

The third source of violence is idealism and utopianism.

People choose violent or destructive means because these seem easy and effective, or because they do not perceive legitimate means as feasible for them.


Asymmetry in Morality:

Our efforts to understand evil are fraught with difficulties. One prominent one is that perpetrators tend to ignore or downplay the moral dimension of their actions—a dimension that is starkly salient to victims. As a result, any sincere effort to understand perpetrators will be somewhat insensitive to the victims.

Evil is but rarely found in the perpetrator’s own self-image. It is far more commonly found in the judgments of others.

As long as our thinking about evil invokes the victim’s perspective, our chances of truly understanding the perpetrators are slim.


Victimisation and Assumptions:

If victimisation 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 a general pattern, suffering stimulates a quest for meaningful explanation. The idea that suffering is random, inevitable, and meaningless has never been satisfactory to most people, and victims desire specific explanations.

Evil challenges some of our most basic and important assumptions about the world, and so the question of why there is evil goes to the heart of the human being’s place in the universe.

Check out our summary on Shattered Assumptions for a better understanding on this topic.


Dimensions of Evil:

There are two core aspects of evil.

The first is the infliction of harm by one person on another.

The second aspect is chaos—the violation of the friendly, orderly, comprehensible world. 


Forms of Evil:

The most common and familiar form of human evil is violence, and that will be emphasised, although other forms of human evil such as oppression and petty cruelty will also be considered.

The prototypes of human evil involve actions that intentionally harm other people. Those will be the focus of the book. Defining evil as intentional interpersonal harm leaves many grey areas.

Accidental or unintended harm may seem evil to the victim but probably would not be judged as such by a dispassionate observer. A particular problem is that victims and perpetrators are often far apart in their judgments of what the perpetrator’s intentions and motives were.

After the crime, perpetrators often don’t undertake in meaningful, reflective thinking and instead focus on mundane, trivial distractions.


Why is there evil?

If you started reading this you are probably wondering “Why is there evil?” But after reviewing what is known about the causes of aggression, violence, oppression, and other forms of evil, Roy is led to the opposite question: Why isn’t there more evil than there is?

The answer is that most violent impulses are held back by forces inside the person. In a word, self-control prevents a great deal of potential violence. Therefore, regardless of the root causes of violence, the immediate cause is often a breakdown of self-control.

You do not have to give people reasons to be violent, because they already have plenty of reasons. All you have to do is take away their reasons to restrain themselves.

Many instances of profound evil begin with a small, ambiguous act that crosses a fuzzy line and then escalates gradually into ever greater levels of violence.


The magnitude gap:

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.

Indeed, many works on evil use a vivid, passionate prose style to drive home the enormity of the crimes. But the very enormity of the crime is itself a victim’s appraisal, not a perpetrator’s. Perpetrators favour a detached, minimalist style, and to understand their mental processes it is essential to lean toward that style, too.

We will see that perpetrators often believe themselves to be totally justified in responding to perceived attacks by their victims. Or almost totally justified. There are important elements of truth in these beliefs more often than we would like to think.


Self-Esteem and Violence:

Today, it is common to propose that low self-esteem causes violence, but the evidence shows plainly that this idea is false. Violent acts follow from high self-esteem, not from low self-esteem.

Actually, it is more precise to say that violence ensues when people feel that their favourable views of themselves are threatened or disputed by others. As a result, people whose self-esteem is high but lacks a firm basis in genuine accomplishment are especially prone to be violent, because they are most likely to have their narcissistic bubble burst.

Egotism is unfortunately on the rise, especially now that modern morality has abandoned its religious commitment to humility and the condemnation of selfishness.

Check out our summary on Selfie which discusses how the west is becoming more self-obsessed and less humble.


Respect and Violence:

Because statements about race are easily misinterpreted, it is important that Roy made himself clear on this point. The history of hate crimes does not offer either whites or blacks much basis for claiming moral superiority. In fact, this history suggests that black and white people are all too similar. Both turn violent when they feel that others are not giving them the respect they deserve.

Both have proved the fallacy of thinking that you are entitled to special respect on the basis of your race; society may work better if people try to earn respect as individuals, by their virtuous acts and achievements.

The apparent conclusion is that the people who respond violently are prone to overestimate the degree to which comments by others are meant as powerfully insulting attacks on them. Several important implications follow from this finding. For one thing, it becomes possible to begin to predict who is likely to be dangerous or violent. Hypersensitive people who often think their pride is being assaulted are potentially dangerous.

Violence often emerges from a pattern in which both sides perform hostile or provoking acts. In retrospect, this should not surprise us: People do not typically beat their loved ones or attack strangers for no reason.

Understanding Evil:

The problem of evil can be approached in two completely different ways. One is to understand the image of evil, that is, the way evil is imagined and portrayed—the way it exists in people’s understanding. The other is to understand the causes of behaviour that is seen as evil.

Perpetrators and Victims:

A first conclusion was that the actions seemed much less evil—less wrong—to the perpetrators than to the victims. Victims tend to see things in stark, absolute categories of right and wrong; perpetrators see a large grey area. Many perpetrators admitted that they had done something that was partly wrong, but they also thought that they were not fully to blame and that it was not as bad as others (especially the victims) had claimed.

The perpetrator’s first slogan is “It wasn’t so bad,” the second is “I couldn’t help it.” From the perspective of people who have done something wrong, it is often quite obvious that factors beyond their control played a large part. These external causes diminish their responsibility, according to them.

Thus, the view of perpetrators as casual, arbitrary, or sadistic is predominantly a victim’s view. Perpetrators rarely portray themselves that way. The contrast is especially surprising in the context of this particular study, because the same people wrote both perpetrator and victim stories. Each person seemed to change his or her style of thinking when moving from the victim to the perpetrator role.

And so a violent or oppressive event recedes into the past much faster for the perpetrators than for the victims. For the perpetrators, it soon becomes ancient history, whereas the victims may see it as crucial to understanding the present.

There is a further, ironic twist to the interrelationship between victim and perpetrator roles: Many perpetrators regard themselves as victims. In their accounts, in their recollections, and probably even in their most sincere gut feelings, many perpetrators see themselves as people who have been unjustly treated and hence deserve sympathy, support, and extra tolerance for any wrongs they have committed.

My point is that our cultural tendency to see good guys and bad guys, or bad guys and innocent victims, may make us unable to see the common reality in which both sides are in the wrong.


CORE IDEA – Nobody believes themselves to be Evil:

What is especially striking about the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants is their name. It seemed quite appropriate and natural to Roy at the time, and he never questioned it. But during the research for this book, Roy gradually began to realise how extremely rare it is to find an organisation that names itself as dedicated to evil. Indeed, the positive affirmation of evil is almost entirely lacking in the real world.

If we talk to their enemies, however, we soon learn that the enemies also see themselves as the good guys fighting against evil. The world often breaks down into us against them, and it almost invariably turns out that evil lies on the side of “them.”


The mythology of Evil:

Wherever we look to try to understand perpetrators, we will find that clear insight is rendered difficult by the myth of pure evil—that is, by a certain stereotype of cruelty and violence. People are strongly attached to these particular ways of thinking about evil, and news stories or victim accounts about violence are often chosen, distorted, and adapted to correspond more closely to this myth.

The most pervasive and compelling image of evil has pretty much the same characteristics wherever it appears. Actual events are then often distorted, misperceived, or otherwise twisted to fit this image. The image survives in the eyes of beholders everywhere because it satisfies several important needs and reassures people about their own goodness and innocence.

The same version of evil was invented several different times, in different parts of the world, independently. Religious ideas of evil thus spring from the way people see the world.

Another trend emphasises evil as chaos. Evil is disorder, unreason, and generally the disruption of the rational, stable, predictable, ordinary patterns of life. This was not just a device invented by the moviemakers; it has marked religious ideas about evil for many centuries.

There is one additional religious trend that does not receive much attention these days but has long been prominent: pride. Indeed, Satan’s first sin was pride. He wanted to be God’s equal; in some versions, he even wanted to replace God as ruler of the universe.

The Devil:

Russell notes that the word devil comes from words meaning “adversary.” Essentially, evil is seen as the adversary of the good.  In Russell’s words, the Devil is a figure who is bent on “inflicting suffering for the sake of suffering.” In this book, Roy uses the term sadism to refer to a tendency to enjoy harming or hurting other people (along with going out of one’s way to find opportunities for that pleasure).  Sadism is an elusive, controversial, and complex phenomenon in terms of the psychology of actual perpetrators of evil. But it is not elusive, controversial, or complex in the image of evil. It is central. Pure and simple, the Devil is sadistic.


The Myth of Pure Evil Broken Down:

What can we conclude from this survey of depictions of evil? The myth of pure evil can be seen as a composite of these images. The myth defines the way people think of evil—which is in some crucial respects quite different from the real, actual causes of violence and oppression.

First, evil involves the intentional infliction of harm on people.

Second, and of crucial importance, evil is driven primarily by the wish to inflict harm merely for the pleasure of doing so. This lack of a comprehensible motive behind evil is strikingly similar to the research findings about ordinary interpersonal conflicts that I discussed in the last chapter. When people have been angered or victimised by someone else, they tend to describe that person’s actions as having no coherent or apparent reason. Sometimes, they simply present the actions as arbitrary and almost incomprehensible.

Ordinary interpersonal conflicts seem to become assimilated in the myth of pure evil. People are unable or unwilling to see that someone who hurt them had an understandable reason. They distort the other’s actions to fit the myth of pure evil.

Third, the victim is innocent and good.

Fourth, evil is the other, the enemy, the outsider, the out-group.

Fifth, evil has been that way since time immemorial. Evil is not a matter of well-meaning, decent people turning bad in response to traumatic, difficult, or otherwise unpleasant experiences. Evil is steady and relentless and, for the most part, unchanging.

Sixth, evil represents the antithesis of order, peace, and stability. The normal world, the good and peaceful world, is stable and predictable. The intrusion of evil is essentially a disruption of the normal pattern of things.

Seventh, evil characters are often marked by egotism. They do not lack for self-esteem. If anything, they have too much self-esteem, because they overestimate themselves. They are wildly ambitious and supremely confident, and they look down on everyone else.

Last, evil figures have difficulty maintaining control over their feelings, especially rage and anger.

The myth of pure evil, then, is surprisingly durable and elastic. Even when each side provokes and antagonises the other, the myth can be invoked. Ironically, the myth fails to acknowledge mutual provocation, but it appears that both sides in a conflict are quite capable of seeing themselves as innocent victims and the other as unreasonably, gratuitously wicked.

In general, then, the myth of pure evil conceals the reciprocal causality of violence. By doing so, it probably increases the violence. The myth of pure evil depicts innocent victims fighting against gratuitously wicked, sadistic enemies. The myth encourages people to believe that they are good and will remain good no matter what, even if they perpetrate severe harm on their opponents. Thus, the myth of pure evil confers a kind of moral immunity on people who believe in it. As we will soon see, belief in the myth is itself one recipe for evil, because it allows people to justify violent and oppressive actions. It allows evil to masquerade as good.

The problem with focusing on differences:

The incorporation of racial conflict into the myth of pure evil suggests one risk in the current American rush to categorise everyone by race and gender. The more people become sensitive to these differences, the more easily they will fall into the us-against-them mentality, and the more readily the myth of pure evil will be pasted onto the other side.

In the history of the world, increased recognition of differences between groups has led more often to conflict and violence than to peaceful cooperation and sharing. America is now making a dangerous gamble on the opposite result.

War needs an Enemy:

Turning from the bedroom to the battlefield will offer another valuable perspective that can shed light on the appeal of the myth of the pure evil. As Carl von Clausewitz (the Prussian veteran whose On War became the most famous book ever written on the topic) once said, “War is inconceivable without a clearly defined image of the enemy.”

Blaming evil on mind altering substances:

Why, then, do people persist in speaking as if drugs and alcohol were the full explanation? Part of the answer no doubt has to do with people’s tendency to simplify matters and invoke the most obvious cause. But another part is that in some ways the alcohol/drug explanation is preferable. It satisfies people in a way that a more complex, integrative explanation would not. Blaming violence on alcohol or drugs is appealing for the same reasons that the myth of pure evil is appealing.

Still, many events involve ambiguous circumstances with several possible explanations that are all somewhat plausible and that roughly fit most of the facts. It is in precisely such situations, where a person can see several possible explanations but is not compelled by powerful evidence to settle on a particular one, that people are most able to find ways to draw the conclusion that they personally prefer.

In general, people maintain their self-esteem by blaming their troubles on external factors and on other people. Victims of aggression are no different, and they have a ready-made target to blame. It is more comforting to conclude that the world contains evil, malicious people who attack innocent victims for no reason than to believe that one’s sufferings are the result of one’s own poor judgment and ill-advised actions that provoked a violent response from someone else.


Revenge and Self-Esteem:

What prompts people to take strong measures to get revenge? The main answer appears to be threats to their self-esteem. A great deal of human violence is perpetrated by people who feel that someone has threatened or damaged their self-esteem. Being humiliated, embarrassed, treated with disrespect, made a fool of, or otherwise attacked on this dimension of worthiness is an important cause of violence, because it creates strong urges to take revenge.

In contrast, however, if the person has not only taken your money but also hurt your pride, you will go to much greater lengths to get even. When responding to a blow to one’s self-esteem or public image, people will accept further costs and losses to hurt the person who humiliated them.

These findings shed considerable light on the psychology of the bully. Hostile people do not have low self-esteem; on the contrary, they think highly of themselves. But their favorable view of themselves is not held with total conviction, and it goes up and down in response to daily events. The bully has a chip on his shoulder because he thinks you might want to deflate his favourable self-image.


The problem of Revenge:

The social problem with revenge is that retaliations will tend to exceed the original transgressions, often by a great deal.


Roots of Envy:

Envy presents us with a threat to self-esteem and a choice point. Researchers have found that the choice of response makes a crucial difference in whether hostility ensues. If you decide that the other person got what you sought because he or she was more worthy or deserving, you may feel depressed or disappointed, and your self-esteem may suffer, but you do not tend to become hostile.

In contrast, if you preserve your self-esteem by concluding that the other person got what you sought unfairly, unjustly, or inappropriately, then you are more likely to feel hostility toward him or her.

Poor people have probably always envied rich people, but they have not always reacted by burning, looting, and killing. It is injustice, not inequality, that breeds riots. It is mainly when poor people come to think that their poverty is unfair that they burst into violence.


Status Inconsistency:

The new buzzword among researchers on family violence is status inconsistency. Status inconsistency refers to some serious contradiction among the various signs of the man’s status. For instance, a man might hold a Ph.D. while his job is driving a taxi. Several important and carefully conducted studies have found that status inconsistency is a typical part of the picture of the violent, abusive husband.

For example, conventional wisdom supposed that housewives would be victims of battering more often than working wives, but the researchers found the opposite to be true. The reason, they concluded, was that nonworking housewives do not threaten their husband’s superior status. But a woman who earns her own money could create status inconsistency for her husband, who might regard himself as the breadwinner but then find that his wife is bringing home a bigger check.

The most important findings, however, involved gaps between education and occupation (for example, career prestige and salary). In these findings, inconsistency had strong but opposite effects. On the one hand, men who had earned high qualifications but who had poor careers were exceptionally violent as a group. In fact, they were six times more likely than average to perpetrate severe violence against their wives.


The Tall Poppy Effect:

These resentments may lie behind the “tall poppy effect” described by the famous Australian social psychologist Norman Feather. The tall poppy effect refers to getting pleasure or satisfaction from the downfall of someone high up. Certainly this effect is not confined to Australia; Americans, too, love to read about the downfall of the high and mighty.


The paradox of good intentions:

“It’s always the good men who do the most harm in the world,” Henry Adams said with reference to Robert E. Lee.

Yet there is an important kernel of truth in the statement. Good men with lofty principles and admirable intentions have occasionally done a great deal of harm. Many of the greatest crimes, atrocities, and calamities of history were deliberately perpetrated by people who honestly and sincerely wanted to do something good.

Idealism leads to evil primarily because good, desirable ends provide justification for violent or oppressive means. Evil is not likely to result when people firmly believe that ends do not justify means.

It is easy to adopt a virtuous pose and insist upon rejection of the view that ends justify means. To do so is hypocritical, however. Most people regard lying as wrong, and yet they will tell someone she looks nicer, younger, thinner than they think she does, or they will lie to protect a secret (or a surprise birthday party), and indeed their utterances depart from the truth in many respects. They may think that killing is wrong, yet killing to protect oneself or one’s family or one’s country is often seen as acceptable.


Taking Sides:

The enemies of the good are, almost by definition, evil. To perceive them as any less than that—to allow that one’s opponents have a legitimate point of view, for instance—is to diminish one’s own side’s claim to be good. One is not fighting the good fight if the enemy is good, too. Therefore, to sustain one’s own goodness, it is essential to see the enemy as evil.

Ironically, the very effort to tolerate and value diversity constitutes a license to hate those who disagree. One of the core paradoxes in the recent social evolution in the United States is how the broad desire to overcome prejudice and ethnic antagonisms has resulted in a society that seems more fragmented and prejudiced than ever.

In many cases, the consequence of one’s own presumptive goodness is more than a license to hate one’s opponents: It is a positive duty to hate them. Sometimes it is difficult to ascertain how much this matters, because people are often willing to hate without needing much encouragement.

There is ample evidence that perpetrators of violence learn to detest their victims. Thus, state torturers are selected partly on the basis of their ideological purity, and they are taught that their victims are part of a dangerously powerful movement that aims to destroy their country.


The Problem with Idealism – Idealistic Evil:

As I have already said, idealists and Utopians cannot easily acknowledge that their opponents have a legitimate, acceptable claim on being good themselves, because to do so would undermine their own claim to be on the side of good.

Another implication is that the victim’s options are slim. In instrumental evil, the victim can get off relatively easily by conceding whatever it is that the perpetrator wants. In idealistic evil, however, what the perpetrator often wants is that the victim be dead.

An adequate understanding of evil must look below the surface at idealistically motivated violence. It could be that the idealism merely dresses up or conceals what is in fact another form of instrumental evil: people using immoral means to do what is best for themselves. The veneer of idealism might be no more than a dishonest or hypocritical ploy to conceal selfishness.

At the individual level, it is even clearer that self-serving motives often operate under the guise of ideals. Historians of various ideological repression campaigns typically record that petty local grudges and animosities often lie behind the denunciations that feed a purge. This was true in the Spanish Inquisition, and it was still true in the modern Stalinist and Khmer Rouge purges.

And that is the key point about the SS: The people designated to carry out the most brutal and wicked actions were the ones who had been chosen and taught to be an elite force, superior in character and virtue to everyone else. It was not the dregs and thugs, but the finest flower, who committed the most horrible deeds.

When someone kills for the sake of promoting a higher good, he may find support and encouragement if he is acting as part of a group of people who share that belief. If he acts as a lone individual, the same act is likely to brand him as a dangerous nut.

One reason for the importance of groups in idealistic evil is the power of the group to support its high, broad ideals. Abstract conceptions of how things ought to be gain social reality from the mere fact of being shared by a group.


The Adversary:

This tendency toward intergroup competition fits well with what we have already seen. The words Devil and Satan are derived from words meaning “adversary” and “opponent,” which fits the view that rivalry or antagonism is central to the basic, original understanding of evil. Evil is located in the group that opposes one’s own group. The survival of one’s own group is seen as the ultimate good, and it may require violent acts against the enemy group.


Intergroup hatred:

The tendency toward intergroup competition sheds light on one aspect of what some researchers have called the discontinuity effect; that is, the pattern by which a group tends to be more extreme than the sum of its individual members. In particular, higher levels of aggression and violence are associated with group encounters than with individual encounters.

Part of the emphasis on keeping the group together comes from the awareness of outside, opposing forces. But having an enemy is not a full explanation. Idealistic groups tend to place a heavy stigma on people who leave the group. Ex-members or apostates are seen as especially dangerous, and it is common for groups to regard them as the worst and most dangerous people in the world.

Hostility toward apostates is hardly a modern phenomenon. In Dante’s Inferno, the very lowest pit of Hell is reserved for traitors, which suggests that in Dante’s time the sin of betraying one’s group was regarded as the ultimate wickedness. Satan himself lived there as the original traitor: He had betrayed God, heaven, and all the forces of good.


Ideals and goals stretch:

What happens is that the group evolves from being a means to being an end. The group may start off as a method of advancing several high ideals and valued goals. Gradually, however, the group itself seems to take on the value that was initially attached to those goals. What is good for the group becomes right, almost regardless of whether it has any clear positive link to the group’s original goals.

As historian R. R Palmer wrote, each purge was supposed to be the final one, after which peace and harmony were expected; but inevitably, new enemies were found and new purges seemed necessary.


How to understand the people how laughed in the holocaust:

Probably the best sign of open-mindedness is frequent revision of one’s opinion. The conflicting, inconsistent evidence has gradually led me to conclude that sadistic pleasure is genuine, unusual, acquired only gradually, and responsible for only a minority of evil.

Undoubtedly, one major reason to emphasise the laughter is the myth of pure evil. Victims can quickly and effectively make their point about the evilness of their captors by reporting this laughter.

Yet making a game of killing does not prove that the killing itself was pleasant. Rather, it suggests a shockingly callous attitude toward the deaths. A callous develops for a purpose, however, which is to reduce sensitivity. If the killing were especially unpleasant, people might try to make it into a game to make it more bearable. Focusing on the game and the score would detract attention from the moral worries and the disgusting unpleasantness of the duty.

Many people seek to enliven tedious, unpleasant jobs by elaborating them into games.20 We certainly have every right to disapprove of killers who treat the killing as a sport, but we cannot infer that they did so out of love of killing. The reason may have been the opposite.

Indeed, public executions have always been an important spectacle. Once again, the modern sensitivity tends to side with the victims and condemn such practices, but these modern attitudes differ from how people at the time regarded them. Criminals were evil, and seeing a criminal put to death was probably comparable to seeing a villain in a modern movie killed by the hero. It signified a morally good, correct act of justice, and some enjoyment of the scene was appropriate.


Empathy is developed:

Empathy is an important inhibitor. The capacity for empathic response emerges quite early in life, but it takes years for empathy to be developed and refined into a common response—and to be strong enough to keep people from inflicting harm. Because empathy has to be developed, there are wide variations in how much people have.


Sadism as addiction:

Addiction is spurred because the person thinks that taking another dose is the only way to feel good again quickly, instead of waiting for the body to regain its original state. With alcohol and other drugs, the pleasure is all in the initial, departure phase (the A phase), and the restorative process (the B phase) is unpleasant.

If this analysis is correct, then there is a potential sadist inside everyone, but our capacity for guilt—the conscience—keeps it hidden. Once we begin to gain experience with inflicting harm on others, the capacity for sadistic pleasure will emerge, but guilt can thwart it. A person prone to a guilty conscience would be unlikely to allow himself or herself to learn to enjoy hurting others.


Making boundaries unclear to increase immorality:

If evil begins when someone crosses a moral line, then it may be promoted by anything that tends to make the line fuzzy or unclear, including ambiguity and misinformation.

This fact is recognised by powerful people who want others to carry out their own malicious wishes. It is easier for people in power to give commands that lead to harm if they are ambiguous, because the authorities can later deny that they intended those outcomes.

One crucial aspect of ambiguity is that it enables people to justify and rationalise their actions.


Morality and Reason:

Apparently, the men who ran the show had learned that the most effective way to get one group of people to kill another, in an orderly and cooperative fashion, was to avoid giving either side any advance notice. Keeping people in the dark is thus one form of the more general pattern of manipulating ambiguity and misunderstanding to promote evil.

One factor is that the luxury of reflection allows people to contemplate details and to see the choice framed in stark moral terms, on a high level of moral principle. In reality, however, people often find themselves unexpectedly thrust into situations that require them to make these highly consequential decisions. Moreover, they do not always recognise the issue as a great moral test of character at that crucial moment.

There seems to be a sort of social trap at work in these situations. When confronted with the demand to do something that is possibly immoral, people usually look for a reason to object. And for obvious reasons, they don’t tend to object by saying that the entire authority structure (and its uniformed troops with all those guns) is doing something horribly, morally repugnant. They look for objections that will not require such a radical breach, or they simply look for the reason they think will work best.

To say “I was only following orders” has become almost the prototype of an inadequate excuse. But this view resulted from the retrospective outcry against the Holocaust,

The point is not to exonerate the perpetrators of atrocities but rather to emphasize the difficulty of doing the right thing when there are conflicting obligations.

Roy is not arguing that people ought to obey illegal or immoral commands. The point is that the obligation to obey may come into conflict with other obligations, and there is no clear or universal conclusion about which obligation should prevail. Conflicting moral obligations pose a fundamentally unsolvable dilemma.

Actions do not come labeled right and wrong, and they only acquire those moral qualities when evaluated from the perspective of meaningful principles.


Losing control or letting yourself lose control:

Thus, modern America may be violent not because it approves of violence (which it clearly doesn’t) but because it supports the belief that people will inevitably lose control on many occasions. Our culture has lately become increasingly fond of notions of “irresistible impulses” and genetic causes of addiction.

But in research on self-control, one conclusion stands out over and over again: People acquiesce in losing control. In other words, they let themselves lose control, and they become active participants.

Often the person’s acquiescence in losing control is cleverly disguised. For example, people speak as if an eating or drinking binge were simply a matter of being overwhelmed by strong impulses that rendered them passive and helpless. Yet during these binges, they continue to procure food or drink, prepare it for consumption, put it in their mouths, and swallow it. These are active, not passive actions.

In such cases, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that people know just how much they can allow themselves to lose control. Yet that point is not firmly determined by natural law; rather, it is influenced by cultural beliefs. This is where the theory of a subculture of violence needs to be revised. It is not that cultures place a positive value on violence but that culture dictates when and where (and how much) it is appropriate to lose control.

People will have violent tendencies or impulses without needing a culture to instill them. All the culture has to do is stop restraining them, and these tendencies will emerge.

There are very few other impulses that are truly irresistible. There are, however, plenty of impulses that people can learn to treat as if they were irresistible. Resisting impulses is hard work, and if people have a readily available excuse for not doing that work, they will often be only too happy to give in.


Atrocities start small:

In most cases, the first evil acts are small and minor. If such acts stayed at that level, the world would be a much kinder and gentler place. The great crimes and atrocities of history did not generally appear abruptly and full-blown. Rather, they were the result of a period of escalation, often one that occurred very gradually.

Even one-sided violence escalates, however. Studies of the Holocaust suggest that large-scale mass murder came only after a long and slow progression of lesser actions against its victims. The German Jews were at first stigmatised, discriminated against, deprived of various legal rights, subjected to special taxes, and in other ways mistreated for years before there was any systematic plan to kill them.


Factors of Escalation:

One of the first factors that leads to the escalation of aggression is desensitisation. In plain terms, desensitisation is essentially a matter of getting accustomed to something and ceasing to react strongly to it. Desensitisation is not necessarily bad, and indeed it is often used for constructive or therapeutic ends.

Vividness of memory is one sign of sensitivity, and vividness fits the pattern of desensitisation.

The pattern of growing more violent when one’s first acts elicit no retaliation or sanctions can be found among individuals just as well as among repressive governments. Experts on domestic abuse believe that one reason for escalation in family violence is that abusers learn how easy it is to get away with hitting.

The two main factors that produce escalation, namely, desensitisation and the discovery that one can get away with it.


Ambiguity and Evil:

The connotation of the word ambiguity is somewhat misleading here, because many people think of ambiguity as involving a lack of meaning, such as when it is unclear how something should be understood or interpreted. It is better, however, to understand ambiguity as involving multiple possible meanings, so that the person is uncertain about which of these meanings is the correct one.

Ambiguity breeds evil because many actions can be viewed in widely different ways from different perspectives. An act may seem cruel or violent from one perspective but correct and even morally obligatory from another. The other side has done something that may be acceptable—or may be a direct attack on your group or its goals.

When the perpetrator is a group rather than a single person, the opportunities for dangerous ambiguities to arise increase dramatically. We have already seen that sometimes the members of a violent group privately think one thing but say something quite different aloud to one another, and so the group communication is distorted.

Indeed, some of the most important offenses were quite imprecisely defined, such as counterrevolutionary comments or actions. There is a substantial capacity for such a system to produce repressive, evil patterns of judgments. How can you prove you are not an enemy of the people? And if you are therefore judged guilty, how could a judge dare be lenient in punishing an enemy of the people?

The sort of instruction that is most likely to produce violent, oppressive, evil measures consists of harsh but vague rules. Injunctions to root out and punish “enemies of the people” are a perfect example; clearly it is important to take severe measures with such enemies, but it is far from clear just who those enemies are, and it is also

Thus, the criteria for recognising mental illness tend to be loose and slippery, even today, and they were certainly much more ambiguous during the heyday of Soviet power. There was some basis for thinking that anyone who failed to recognise the officially sanctioned truth of Communist doctrine must be mentally ill, just as the sanity of a modern American who believes that the earth is flat or that the government plants mind-control drugs in the municipal water supply would be suspect.

A determined inspection of almost anyone’s life and mind can find evidence of abnormality, neurosis, and other pathology. This ambiguity has made psychological diagnosis a useful tool for the repression of political dissent.

Another important way in which ambiguity contributes to evil among idealistic groups is the shuffling and hence eclipsing of personal responsibility. When people act alone, it is obvious who made the decisions and who is to blame. In large and complex groups, however, responsibility can sometimes be divided up into such small parts and pieces that no one seems to be to blame even if there are utterly horrific results.

The reason is that the responsibility for taking action is divided up among members of the group. The larger the group, the less responsible any individual person feels.

Such patterns are not confined to executives. Investigations of police departments or military units often encounter difficulties when the officers refuse to implicate their colleagues. These officers feel that their first moral obligation is loyalty to their fellows, and so they deny having knowledge about misdeeds.

A final way in which groups contribute to the escalation of violence emerges from the discrepancy between what the members of the group say and what they privately believe. The group seems to operate based on what the members of the group say to one another. It may often happen that the members harbour private doubts about what the group is doing, but they refuse to say them, and the group proceeds on its course of action as if the doubts did not exist.


Rationalisations and evil:

The two key components of rationalisation were both present: There was at least a vestige of plausibility in the argument that the children were doomed anyway, so that a quick death spared them further suffering, and the perpetrator had a powerful desire to believe that there was something good about what he or she was doing.

There are plenty of other, similar rationalisations that perpetrators use, but these examples are sufficient to illustrate the point. People will settle for any vaguely plausible argument when they want badly enough to believe that their hurtful actions are justified. Before taking a more systematic look at how evildoers maintain their justifications, it is necessary to explain the nature of guilt, because guilt is what the justifications are designed to prevent.



The best way to understand guilt is as a gut reaction that gets filtered through an elaborate conceptual system about rules and responsibility.

One strategy for avoiding guilt feelings is based on the interpersonal nature of guilt. People feel guilty when they hurt people with whom they share some kind of social bond. Therefore, to hurt people without guilt, make sure that your victims do not share any bond with you. The lower the fellow-feeling, the less guilt.

Two of the roots of evil are especially relevant to this strategy of denying guilt.

One is egotism. There is a strong sense of superiority implicit in the pattern of categorising one’s enemies as subhuman vermin.

The other is idealism. Idealists can best avoid guilt if they are convinced that they are fighting against evil, and they feel the least guilty when their enemies resemble the myth of pure evil. Two prominent features of that myth are the fundamental otherness and innate wickedness of the enemy.


Guilt and removing choice:

The potential logical power of such a claim is enormous. We have understood guilt as a gut feeling that gradually becomes enmeshed in a web of complex meanings. Foremost among these meanings is responsibility. Guilt is supposed to occur only when the person recognises that he or she is responsible for the misdeed. Responsibility is typically understood as involving freely chosen behaviour. But if there were no options to choose among, then there was no choice, and hence no responsibility.

The comment “You have no choice” was literally and patently absurd, because the subject obviously did have a choice, and indeed the whole point of the experiment was to learn about what choices people made in that situation. But hearing the authority figure say that you have no choice was enough to conceal the fact of choice and to get people to continue giving shocks. The reason, presumably, is that the subjects in the experiment did not want to believe they had a choice.

To believe that they were responsible for their own decisions would have forced them to make moral calculations and difficult decisions on very short notice. It was better to accept the authority figure’s word that they had no choice.

Many justifications do not depend primarily on factual reality. All that is required is a will to believe and some kernels of truth. And the kernels of truth were quite adequate in those cases. Instead of asking, “Were those who refused executed?” we should ask “Could soldiers have believed that they would have been executed for refusing?” The answer appears to be yes.

The belief in irresistible impulses, despite evidence to the contrary, is probably due to the appeal of the notion: It enables perpetrators to escape responsibility for their actions. They can believe they had no choice.


Rationalisation starts before the crime:

To understand the perpetrator’s point of view, we must recognise one crucial fact: Most perpetrators want very much to believe the justifications.

To dismiss them as either blatant hypocrites or deluded fools is to miss the point. A justification for killing may seem feeble in retrospect, but that judgment is made with the benefit of hindsight and dispassionate objectivity that can expose the holes in the argument. The perpetrator does not want to see through the holes in his justifications. To do so would require him to recognise the full evil horror of what he is doing.

Many people think that guilt is something one feels mainly after one has done something wrong—especially if the wrong was intentional.

McGraw explained. When people intend to do something that might be wrong, they know well in advance that they might feel guilty. Accordingly, they change their actions to ward off guilt.

They start their rationalisations well in advance, and they make certain that the actions themselves remain consistent with these rationalisations. Thus, they do not end up feeling guilty. In contrast, when people hurt someone by accident, they have not had time to marshal their rationalisations or minimise the blameworthy aspects, and so they feel guilty afterward.


Low-level thinking and guilt:

The primary mental trick used to escape guilt feelings can be called low-level thinking.

The term is based on an influential theory put forward by psychologists Robin Vallacher and Daniel Wegner. They began by borrowing a standard argument of the philosophy of action, which is that most actions can be described in multiple ways that differ in their level of meaning.

It is not that one level is more correct than the others, because all are accurate descriptions of the same action. They differ, however, in their implications. Raising one’s arm carries no emotional or moral weight, whereas performing a symbolic revolutionary act carries extensive and heavy weight.

It conceals the wrongness of the actions. Wrongness is largely a high-level judgment that requires evaluating the higher meaning of actions according to broad, meaningful principles. If one can avoid thinking at that level, the wrongness does not appear.


Bystanders and neutrality:

It is appealing but misleading to sort history into perpetrators and victims. Often there are more bystanders present than either perpetrators or victims, and the bystanders have the power to alter the outcome, whether they realise it or not.

Despite that bias, however, Roy must admit that he has been persuaded that it is sometimes indeed morally impossible to remain neutral. Bystanders do have a responsibility to protest evil, because it will grow unchecked if they do not.


The 4 Root Causes of Evil:

Social scientists are fully prepared for whitewashing rationalizations on the part of perpetrators, but to recognize the extent to which everyone else’s perceptions are also biased discourages one about the prospects of seeing through to the essential nature of evil. People tend to adapt real events to their expectations, based on the myth of pure evil.  The result is a scenario involving wholly innocent, well-meaning victims attacked for no valid reason by arrogant, sadistic, out-of-control evildoers who hate peace and beauty and get pleasure from making people suffer.

There are four major root causes of evil, or reasons that people act in ways that others will perceive as evil.

The first root cause of evil is the simple desire for material gain, such as money or power.

The second root of evil is threatened egotism. Villains, bullies, criminals, killers, and other evildoers have high self-esteem, contrary to the comfortable fiction that has recently spread through American culture. Violence results when a person’s favorable image of self is questioned or impugned by someone else.

The third root of evil is idealism. When people believe firmly that they are on the side of the good and are working to make the world a better place, they often feel justified in using strong measures against the seemingly evil forces that oppose them. Noble ends are often seen as justifying violent means.

The fourth root of evil is the pursuit of sadistic pleasure. This root is responsible for a much smaller proportion of the world’s evil than the others, and indeed most observations of killers, torturers, rapists, and similar evildoers indicate that only about 5 or 6 percent of perpetrators actually get enjoyment out of inflicting harm. Moreover, sadism appears to be an acquired taste.

All told, the four root causes of evil are pervasive, which leads one to wonder why violence and oppression are not even more common than they are. The answer is that violent impulses are typically restrained by inner inhibitions; people exercise self-control to avoid lashing out at others every time they might feel like it.