There are some people who seem to be just . . . evil.
It feels kind of icky, just making that statement. It seems like stepping into that whole judeo-christian tar-pit of demon possession and punishing, crazy gods and hell fire and damnation and sinners. We can see that idea illustrated pretty well in The Devil tarot card. Two nude people are chained to a black altar while a gigantic, scary demon bat/goat sort of a thing hovers over them. Yikes! They done been possessed by the devil!!!
Evil in that context seems like a very medieval, primitive sort of a concept. Something that you expect to hear coming out of the mouths of fundamentalist religious people who aren’t very spiritually evolved.
Still . . .there are some people who seem functionally evil.
Many of us have had the ill-fortune to encounter a few psychopaths or sociopaths or malignant narcissists. Usually – if we’re normal people – they take us completely by surprise. Many of them are extremely adept at concealing their inner natures, but they basically have NO EMPATHY. No sense of compassion. No kindness. No love living inside of them. Not even a little sprout.
It’s a shock, when we realize that. That these are people who appear to be perfectly normal on the outside (in fact, in the case of narcissists, they may be very attractive on the outside) but have nothing but a dead, arid desert in their hearts. What’s worse, many of them aren’t content with just being morally and ethically dead, they actually delight in causing harm to others. Sociopaths may be content to live and let live (as long as you don’t cross them) but malignant narcissists and psychopaths go out of their way to fuck people up. They don’t see other people as humans – they see them as prey.
It can still be difficult to get from that behavior to the concept of evil. We tend to view, “evil,” in terms of moral wrongness and choice. In other words, if we see a clear choice between loving kind behavior on the one hand and cruel, malicious behavior on the other and we choose to be cruel and malicious, then that’s evil. The evil lies in perceiving the distinction between the two behaviors and choosing the one that causes harm.
Psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists don’t seem to have that sense of choice. It’s not that they’re choosing to be evil rather than being kind, they simply have no concept of kindness. What’s more, they view that lack of a sense of compassion as a strength. They view normal people who have a conscience and try to be kind as weak and they go out of their ways to exploit that weakness.
So, in a classic sense of ethics, we can’t really see them as being evil, because they don’t have that capacity to choose between being a good human being and being a fucked up human being. They’re just fucked up. Period.
We may embrace the medical/psychiatric model and try to make excuses for them. We look at them from a normal person’s point of view and think, “How awful it must be to live in a world of no love and no kindness. Something horrifically traumatic must have happened to them to make them that terrible.”
Well, yes and no. Sociopaths, for instance, have brains that are measurably, physically different from those of normal people. They appear to have been born that way. Not all people who are born with that brain structure become sociopaths, however. It seems that something has to happen in their environment to trigger the brain into becoming sociopathic. It’s like they’re hardwired that way at birth, but someone or something has to throw the switch to activate the wiring.
Psychologists and researchers are still arguing about exactly what it is that throws the switch. It could be emotional trauma, physical trauma, horrible parents, malnutrition, all of the above or – in some cases – none of the above. A lot of sociopaths were born into wealthy, loving families. Somehow, though, they end up with NO feelings of compassion or empathy, with a total lack of the characteristics that make us fully human.
It’s important to note, though, that THEY DON’T FEEL THAT WAY. At all. They’re quite happy with the way they exist in the world and think the rest of us are fools. They don’t see themselves as lacking in basic human characteristics, they see us as weaklings.
It’s also important to note that there are apparently no, “cures,” for these disorders. There’s no way to magically change them into, “normal,” human beings. If you dig around on the internet you’ll find some theorizing that talk therapy may be effective in treating malignant narcissism, but when you ask actual therapists about that, they just shake their heads.
There is some evidence that the number of sociopaths and narcissists among us is actually increasing, but there are arguments against that. It could be that our methodology for detecting them has just gotten better. It could be that they’re just more visible because of our new world of social media.
In any case, there’s no question that they’ve always been among us. In fact, Austrian philosopher Karl Popper argued that what we call, “history,” is largely the record of the psychopaths of our species. We study people like Hitler, Napolean, and Genghis Khan, people who caused immense pain and suffering in the world and just didn’t care, but we ignore all of the millions of kind, loving souls who were trying to just get through life.
Although they are very much a minority, almost a tiny fraction of the population, they have an oversized effect on the people around them. Because of them, we tend to question the goodness of human nature. We see the world as a dangerous place and fail to see all of the love and compassion that exists in the majority of human beings.
Even worse, they frequently succeed in dragging us down to their level. Anyone who’s been worked over by a malignant narcissist will tell you that you emerge from that experience with a lot less trust of other people and with a constant question of whether the next person you become involved with will be a real human being or another monster in disguise.
So . . . we end up having to recognize that there ARE people living among us who have no empathy, no compassion, no sense of ethics, no internal moral compass, and who cause a great deal of suffering for other human beings.
We can’t really call them, “evil,” in the ethical sense of their choosing to be rotten human beings. And we can’t really use the medical model and say that they’re, “sick,” because many of them live normal, productive lives and appear to be quite happy, making everyone around them miserable. And, thankfully, we’re evolving out of that primitive model of thinking that they’re possessed by demons or they’re servants of the devil.
But there they are, walking among us like human question marks. How can you be a human being and exist in that space? If you DO exist in that space, are you still fully human? It’s truly a conundrum that currently has no solution. Until there IS a solution, they can at least serve as a contrast for the rest of us. We can look at them and realize, “That’s what I DON’T want to be.”
Dan Adair is the author of, “Just the Tarot,” available on Amazon.com at a very reasonable price.