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Explaining Evil Behaviour: Using Kant and M. Scott Peck to Solve the Puzzle of Understanding the Moral Psychology of Evil People

My intention in this paper will be to show that Peck's diagnosis of evil as a psychiatric condition can be placed in the traditional context of moral psychology by showing how it accords, in many respects, with Kant's denial of the possibility of evil behaviour. The Argument Kant denies that moral evil is possible and suggests that wickedness (self-indulgence) is what we actually witness in evil behaviour. 

However, Parkin's research into the folk psychology of evil (in his Anthropology of Evil) indicates that Kant's attempt to explain moral evil away as mere wickedness would not be generally accepted. I suggest that the explanation for this disagreement is that evil behaviour is actually principled human behaviour except that the principles involved are principles of which the actors are unconscious. I then show how Peck provides an explanation of how the development of such unconscious principles (related to the development of malignant narcissism) could provide the hidden motivating power for evil behaviour. My argument is that a disease (malignant narcissism) could have a morally relevant component. Thus, if the disease took the form of an unconscious allegiance to a principle, then the related behaviour would come to have a moral aspect. This follows from the fact that morality-in Kant's view-is centered around principled behaviour. Now Kant was not in possession of the idea of the unconscious. 

Therefore the idea of evil behaviour arising from willing in accordance with an unconscious principle was not available to him. As a consequence he had to simply reject as unintelligible the very possibility of evil behaviour in terms of his moral psychology. For his part, Peck did not explicitly take into account the fact that moral behaviour essentially involves principles. Therefore he was unable to see that it is because evil behaviour does stem from unconcious principles (serving as defense mechanisms) that such behaviour has traditionally been regarded as a species of moral behaviour, though as Parkin's research indicates, a puzzling kind of moral behaviour. In presenting the argument I will first set out the prima facie reasons why evil behaviour is thought to be puzzling. I will then set out Kant's moral psychology which provides an explanation of the puzzle of evil behaviour.

 In the next section I will outline those considerations which explain the common sense opposition to Kant's solution to the problem of evil behaviour. I will then introduce the notion of unconscious principles and follow this with an account of their origin gleaned from Peck's People of the Lie. I conclude by in the integrating Pecks' diagnosis with Kant's analysis of evil. The puzzling nature of evil behaviour Why does explaining evil behaviour present a problem? It is a problem because, in terms of folk psychology, opinion is divided as to how evil behaviour is to be explained. There is a natural assumption that evil behaviour is a species of moral behaviour. This involves the assumption that evil people could have done otherwise. However, often the things that evil people do seem so monstrous that it becomes hard to believe that such people are actually choosing to do such things deliberately. It is tempting instead to explain their behaviour in terms of some sort of insanity that determines their actions. If we adopt this explanation then at least no one need be regarded as morally capable of doing evil, a possibility that, for some reason, most people find peculiarly abhorrent.

The problem with this tactic is that it denies what seems to be evident, namely that the term "evil" has moral connotations. When this is acknowledged, the difficulty involved in explaining evil behaviour becomes one of not being able to understand such behaviour in the sense of not being able to accommodate it to ordinary explanations of human behaviour. Thus when people act impulsively out of jealousy or envy (and do something terrible) then their behaviour can be understood--and to some degree excused--since we have all, on occasion, behaved impulsively and harmed others as a consequence. However, when people are not being driven by some immediate desire, when their bad behaviour is apparently deliberate, then for some reason we find such behaviour very hard to understand. Pocock captures this idea in the following passage: I suggest that when [people] use the word 'evil' . . . their conception of [human nature] is circumstantial, and is derived from their own knowledge and experience of themselves . . . and of others whom they regard as like themselves. 

Hence the recurrence in conversation of such phrases as 'I have done a lot of bad things in my life', 'I have known some hard cases', or 'I can imagine myself doing most things' but 'I cannot imagine how anyone could do a thing like that'. (1985, 52) This gives us a rough sense of why there is a problem explaining evil behaviour. One way to sharpen our characterization of this difficulty we have in understanding how evil behaviour is possible is to consider the difference between nice people and good people. A nice person is someone who is naturally inclined to do the right thing when the occasion arises. But nice people do not act on principle so, occasionally, their inclination to be nice may lead them to do something wrong: i.e., neglect their duty to point out a fault in someone's behaviour that ought to be pointed out. 

By contrast, a good person is someone who does the right thing when the occasion arises simply because it is right--whether or not he or she happens to be so inclined. Good people are morally good because they choose to act on principle regardless of their inclinations. Is there a parallel distinction to be made on the dark side of the human character? Unfortunately, there is no perfect antonym for "nice"--no word that captures the idea of a personality that is naturally inclined to do what is wrong in the way that a nice person is naturally inclined to do what is right--so I will simply nominate the closest candidate "nasty" to mean the opposite of "nice" (I will assume that, in the moral sphere, "evil" is commonly thought to be the proper antonym for "good." when this term is used in the moral sense). 

Accepting this terminology, the parallel distinction would run: a nasty person is someone who is naturally inclined to do the wrong thing when the occasion arises. An evil person is someone who does the wrong thing when the occasion arises simply because it is wrong--whether or not he or she happens to be inclined to do so. Evil people act on principle regardless of their inclinations. It would be natural to object to this rather strict characterization of what it takes for an act to be regarded as evil in the following way: "Philosophers (and others) who argue about what is and is not possible for a human being to do base their arguments upon some very peculiar definitions. In this case, it is argued that humans cannot do evil (or be evil) because they could not act upon such a principle. Instead the behaviour, or the underlying intent, is called wicked or nasty. But experienced by the recipient of a wicked or evil act, is there a distinction worth making?" It is worth making in terms of trying to understand what is going on in such cases, and the first step in this process is to identify the nature of the act. The recipient of the act is going to want to know, first and foremost, why the perpetrator did what they did. If the perpetrator declares that she enjoys inflicting pain then it is easy to understand why she did it. The motivation that determines the nature of her act is straightforward: If you find a certain kind of activity enjoyable, do it. Armed with this understanding, the victim can at least recognize that his plight is a function of the perpetrator's being motivated by a desire, albeit an unusual one. 

But if the perpetrator were to declare that she did what she did 'on principle' our implicit understanding of the logic governing 'principled behaviour (which I set out in detail in the next section) makes it impossible for us to understand how the person could bring themselves to act on such a principle. These different types of motivation illustrate how the problem of evil behaviour arises. On the one hand we seem to understand, without difficulty, the moral psychology of being good; of acting out of duty or 'on principle'. For example, we learn that a friend of ours has become a prison visitor. When we next meet him we remark how nice it is of him to have taken on this difficult task. He replies that it has nothing to do with his being nice: he is by no means naturally inclined to help others in this fashion and that he only became a prison visitor because he recognized that it was his duty to do so. 

We regard this explanation of his behaviour as possible-in terms of its psychology-since we ourselves can think of instances in our own lives where we too have acted against our inclinations on the grounds that our duty came first. It might be objected that the example of the dutiful prison visitor is not convincing for the following reason: "If an individual felt such a duty there would have to be an explanation for it, and that would surely be as much a part of that individual's natural inclinations as anything else." Kant would reply that on this view no moral praise would be due to 'dutiful' prison visitors since it was simply in their nature to do their duty. To earn moral praise you must act solely out of a sense of duty. 

Since we at least think we understand what we mean when we add this qualification (i.e., 'solely'), we must accept the possibility that there is no natural explanation for moral behaviour. Our capacity to act out of duty alone must instead be attributed to our possession of a free will, a form of causality that gives us the capacity to act 'on principle' even when we have no natural inclination to so act. This point has relevance to another natural objection to this analysis: "There also seems to be a bit of two-dimensionality necessary to sustain these arguments about what humans could or could not do. A nice person may find it easier to be a good person, because there is less 'drive' to do bad, than a good person who acts on principle, but I do not think that such persons exist as pure types. Let us bring in a bit of continuum or dimension to human traits. 

The nice person is not purely nice, and sometimes will pursue the good not out of his/her nature, but because it is right to do so." I agree with all of this but it still leaves the distinction intact. Thus in any given case the nice person may be motivated either by their character or because they think the action in question would be right. If they act from the latter motive their act creates moral value, if they act due to their character it does not. The person, himself, may not be sure on a given occasion whether he acted on principle or due to his nice nature, but if he thought that he was inclined to do good because he was nice he would be confused: there is no continuum between good acts and nice acts. The former are motivated by respect for the principles involved the latter by the desire to be nice By contrast, the psychology behind the distinction between nasty and evil behaviour eludes us. We are simply unable to grasp the idea of evil people acting "on principle"-doing the wrong thing simply because it is wrong. 

For example, someone tells me that she has been making anonymous telephone calls in an effort to destroy a colleague's reputation. I say to her: "You are a nasty piece of work". She then replies: "My being nasty has nothing to do with it. I am not simply following my inclinations here. As an evil person I am attempting to destroy this innocent person's reputation simply because it is the wrong thing to do". This characterization of a person's being evil 'on principle' certainly sounds odd, even incoherent, but why exactly? It might be objected that this resulting asymmetry is being forced upon these two concepts: Thus one could say "There is a problem in insisting that evil must be the precise reciprocal of good. Thus, if the good person is one who acts according to a universalizable principle, it need not be the case that an evil person behaves for symmetric reasons. The evil person may be someone who enjoys doing evil and enjoys hurting others-not for gain but for the immediate pleasure plus the future pleasures of remembering evil." 

My point in insisting that evil be thought of as the reciprocal of good is that only by doing so can we retain the idea of evil as a moral concept. If instead we regard evil people as simply those with unusual desires, there is no puzzle about the moral psychology of evil people. As will be seen in the section on Peck, one of the reasons that he was driven to characterize certain patients as evil was based not on the fact that they had unusual desires but on the fact that the behaviour they were engaged in was not enjoyable and they themselves were unable to understand why they were deliberately behaving in this way. Kant's Analysis of the Incoherence of Evil Behaviour Kant thought that the idea of evil people acting 'on principle' was incoherent. To see why we need to review his moral psychology. 

Kant believed that we could be motivated in two ways: either by our desires or by principles. It is obvious how we are motivated by desires: when we act in accordance with our desires we usually experience satisfaction and it is this satisfaction (or our anticipation of it) that motivates our behaviour. But how can principles motivate us? Kant distinguished between two sorts of principles: hypothetical and categorical. The way in which hypothetical principles are able to motivate us is not difficult to understand. For example, when it is not obvious how we are to satisfy a desire, we think about the situation and formulate principles which, if followed, will lead to the satisfaction of this desire. 

Thus if you want to be warm in a cool climate then adopt the following principle: always dress in woolens. However, it is clear that hypothetical principles like "always dress in woolens" can only motivate us if we already have a desire to be warm. Strictly speaking, hypothetical principles do not motivate us by themselves. They are only useful in specifying the means to an end that a rational person would follow if she wanted to satisfy a certain desire. By comparison, categorical principles do not depend on pre-existing desires. Categorical principles are principles that are supposed to govern our behaviour regardless of our desires. How can categorical principles motivate us in the absence of desire? As we noted earlier, Kant's moral psychology assumes that they can: a good person is someone who does the right thing-obeys the categorical imperative-when the occasion arises simply because it is right. Good people act 'on principle' regardless of whether they happen to be inclined to do so or not. But how did Kant explain this remarkable form of motivation?

 Kant reasoned that if a principle were to be able to motivate people-regardless of their natural inclinations-its power to do so must lie in the effect that the rightness of the principle had upon them. This raises two questions: "What makes a principle right?" and "What gives such a principle the power to motivate someone who considers it as a potential maxim?". What Makes a Principle Right? To understand what makes a principle right we need to see what makes a principle wrong. Take as our candidate for a wrong principle: "Always lie when in difficulties". Kant pointed out that the key to understanding why this principle is wrong lies in attempting to universalize it: when we imagine it put into practice by everyone-as if it were a law of nature-we find that it could not, in fact, be acted upon. Why? Because if it were well understood that everyone would always lie when in difficulties, no one would ever believe what anyone else said to him. 

Thus there would be no point in attempting to follow the principle since no one would believe anyone when the lie was attempted. In Kant's words "they would laugh at utterances of this kind as empty shams" (cited in Paton, 1948, 85). A principle is therefore seen to be wrong when we realize that it cannot be universalized. By contrast, a principle is right-the actions it counsels are morally obligatory-f it can be universalized. How is a moral principle able to motivate us? A moral principle is able to motivate us due to the rational respect that we feel for the principle when we consider what would happen if everyone acted in accordance with it. Our respect stems from the fact that we recognize that right principles are-to use Kant's terminology-practical, by which he means that they are not self-defeating if put into practice. We have a rational respect for such principles because we know that we will-in practice-be able to act on such principles if we choose to adopt them. By contrast, as rational agents, we cannot act on a principle that is self-defeating because we understand that it cannot actually be put into practice. 

Since we understand this we feel impotent, as rational agents, when we consider doing something 'on principle' when the principle is not universalizable. As we shall see shortly, we can certainly act on principles which are not universalizable, e.g., "always lie when in difficulties," but we will not be doing so out of a rational respect for the principles. We will instead be motivated simply by our natural desire to escape some difficulty. Thus, according to Kant's theory, it is impossible to understand the moral psychology of evil: Kant maintains that if we can clearly see that an action, based on a given principle, is self-defeating, it is impossible for us-as rational agents-to summon the moral power to embark on such a course of action. 

Whereas, in the case of good actions, we can draw upon this moral power-which stems from the rational respect we feel for a principle-when we see that it could be universalized. Now we can, I think, grant Kant's argument on the lofty plane of universalized principles: if everyone always lied when in difficulty, no one could, in practice, expect to be able to lie successfully. Therefore the policy of telling such lies 'on principle', i.e., without any regard to the acknowledged fact that such a project is doomed to failure, would be irrational. However, this is surely no argument against the possibility of evil behaviour: As a nasty person, I may grant Kant's argument and simply bypass it as a bar to evil behaviour by pointing out the obvious: in practice, people seldom tell lies. I can, therefore, take advantage of the fact that, in any speech community, there is presumption that people will tell the truth. (That is a condition of the possibility of the very existence of the speech community: if people usually lied there would be little point in talking to each other.) Therefore, I can count on others believing me and I can, therefore, rationally expect to be believed when I tell a lie to escape some difficulty. Surely, then, this sort of morally wrong behaviour is possible for a rational agent--the so-called "free rider." 

However, this method of escape misses the point. Our original intuition about moral psychology allowed that nice behaviour could be distinguished from good behaviour on the grounds that while a person could behave nicely-if so inclined-he or she could only be good if he or she acted 'on principle'. However, acting on principle necessarily involves universalizing the maxim you are acting on. Only by universalizing the maxim can you recognize the rightness of the principle involved (by seeing that it would not be self-defeating if put into practice by everyone). Only when you do this do you feel a rational respect for the maxim. Without this incentive of respect for the principle, no action-which is motivated solely by the rightness of a principle-is possible. However this is not the factor that serves as an incentive for the free rider's action and it follows that the free rider is simply not acting 'on principle when she points out the possibility of adopting the 'lie when in difficulties' maxim. What the free rider recognizes is that it is possible to adopt this maxim as an expedient. 

Of course this sort of behaviour is possible, but it will not be a case of evil behaviour because the lie will not be told simply because the principle 'always lie when in difficulties' is wrong. Indeed, it is unlikely that such a thought would even occur to the free rider. At this point, then, the psychology of evil behaviour remains incoherent. We do not understand what could be meant by doing something morally wrong-'on principle'-which mirrors the way in which we understand what it is to do something morally right 'on principle'. How is Evil Possible According to Kant? Now although there is no such thing as evil behaviour, according to Kant, people still disobey the moral law. Kant calls such behaviour "wicked" and thinks of it primarily as a weakness in the personality (the emotional disposition) of the person. Thus wicked people know that what they are doing is wrong. They have not lost the capacity to be good, they simply lack the will. They are, therefore, not beyond help. The wicked may prosper due to contingencies but, given time, experience will usually teach them the folly of their ways. Though wicked behaviour is possible on Kant's understanding of moral psychology, there is no way to understand the moral psychology of evil behaviour. As a consequence, Kant dismissed such behaviour as an illusion. There is no evil, only wickedness. (When Kant dismisses evil behaviour as incoherent he, by implication, assumes that the existence of wicked behaviour is simply a natural phenomenon. As such there is no problem associated with the existence of wicked characters any more than there is a problem associated with the existence of prudent or saintly character types. The natural dispositions of people form a continuum and it is a simply a contingent fact that some are born with-or develop-a disposition to be wicked, prudent or saintly.) 

The Common Sense Opposition to Kant's Analysis of Evil Kant's thesis seems counter-intuitive because we think that evil behaviour has a definite position within the range of moral possibilities: being evil is worse than being nasty (or wicked) in exactly the same sense that being good is better than being nice. Moreover, as Parkin's research indicates (see next paragraph), we think that there are evil people and that evil behaviour actually exists. Despite this, people tend to at least agree with the motive driving Kant's denial of the existence of evil, namely that evil behaviour-thought of as a species of moral behaviour-is extremely difficult to understand. 

We carry this agreement to the point that we are divided about whether we think evil people deserve the name of human beings or whether such people must be reckoned to be some sort of monsters. This indecision is reflected in the following quotations from Parkin: [David] Pocock's survey of the British uses of the term "evil" gives a revealing breakdown into two kinds of views. A majority is prepared to use the word in the radical sense of inhumanly monstrous, and so to engage in an absolute distinction between acceptable and unacceptable kinds of human being. A minority is reluctant to use the word at all, because, Pocock suggests, it is too strong and reveals a reluctance to so totally convert fellow human beings into monsters. ... [I]f the minority view were dominant, apparent human malice might be excused but not always explained. (1985, 12-13) (I should note here in passing the implication here if we took this view we would have to regard human malice as only apparent not real since if it were real it would be inexplicable. Kant's account of our moral psychology makes explicit these intuitions of the minority; viz., those who are reluctant to use the word 'evil' at all. Such persons, in practice, agree with Kant's view that evil behaviour is inexplicable-if we attempt to attribute it to a human being, viz., a rational being capable of acting only on those principles which can be universalized.) The complex of the representations of disinterested malice expresses a paradox, a belief in creatures which are and are not human beings, at once within and beyond the limits of humanity. (1985, 48) 

Whether we ourselves do or do not use the word "evil" it must surely be agreed that it belongs to the language of morals. (1985, 43) These quotations provide evidence for what I take to be the most common intuitions about the meaning of the term 'evil'. It is not a term we use lightly and when we do apply it, its application stands as an admission that the behaviour in question is very difficult to understand as the behaviour of human beings. This is because the behaviour of human beings is usually subject to a rational explanation in the sense that we can attribute familiar motives to them and see their behaviour as being in accord with these motives. "Disinterested malice" is not a motive we can understand easily since it seems to involve doing something wrong simply because it is wrong. (We have seen why Kant regards this from of motivation as incoherent: the incentive-rational respect for the principle in question-is lacking.) In the light of this, it is, on the one hand, tempting to assume that the perpetrators of evil have lapsed from their human status and become monsters. But against this option is the fact that evil behaviour is not berserk or random behaviour: there is something calculated about it and because of this we are driven to search for the rule or principle that might account for its deliberate character. 

However, typically, this search is unsuccessful. Thus, for instance, Iago refuses to explain himself: Othello. Will you I pray, demand that demi-devil Why he hath thus ensnar'd my soul and body? Iago. Demand me nothing; what you know you know From this time forth I will never speak word. -Othello, Act V, Scene II In a moment I will introduce Peck's idea that perhaps Iago cannot explain his evil behaviour but first I need to introduce the idea of an unconscious principle. Unconscious Principles I have noted that Kant's theory explains the inexplicable (the idea of moral evil being done 'on principle' or for its own sake) by explaining it away. According to Kant, evil behaviour is-from a motivational point of view-unintelligible and instances of evil are, in fact, simply instances of wickedness. As we have seen, the trouble with Kant's explanation is that our common intuitions about evil do not square with his dismissal of the possibility of evil behaviour. However, his explanation of the impossibility of evil does give us a clue as to how we might explain why our intuitions about evil are at odds with his analysis. 

According to Kant, the essence of morality has to do with principled behaviour. We know that the motivation that drives good behaviour stems in part from an appreciation of the universalizability of the principle that inspires it. We find we respect such universalizable principles insofar as we recognize them as counselling modes of behaviour which are possible for everyone. Now, if we agree that 1) Evil behaviour is a species of moral behaviour and that 2) Moral behaviour must be governed by a principle, we can conjecture that 3) The principle that governs evil behaviour must not be openly acknowledged as a principle by the person whose behaviour it governs. Otherwise, as Kant has pointed out, it would be seen to be self-defeating and thereby lose its power to motivate our behaviour. Therefore we need a sense of 'principle' which does not involve the idea of the principle being consciously acknowledged. 

Thus, if a principle is to be capable of empowering evil behaviour, it must have the status of what I shall call an unconscious principle: it must be a maxim which has gained the status of a principle-a rule that serves as a fundamental guide to our behaviour-without being openly acknowledged and tested to see whether it deserves to have this status. If we could make sense of this idea of behaviour governed by a unconscious principle we could explain how an evil person may act in accordance with a principle-albeit an unconscious i.e., unacknowledged, principle (one which has not been held up for examination to see if it is universalizable). If we could make sense of such a notion, it would explain why evil behaviour typically displays all the energy and tenacity which normal principled behaviour-morally good behaviour-exhibits. It would also explain our intuitions with respect to the notion that 'evil' is a term which belongs to the language of morals--a language which concerns itself essentially with principled behaviour. The origin of unconscious principles 

In order to further explain this idea of an unconscious principle I now turn to M. Scott Peck's book People of the Lie (1983). In this book he considers evil from a psychiatric point of view. He was led to seek some psychiatric diagnosis of evil through his encounter with a small number of patients who, on examination, turned out to be involved in what could only be called evil behaviour. However, because evil is traditionally a moral category, his problem was to find a psychiatric classification under which this opaque type of moral behaviour could be adequately diagnosed. He found this classification in a malignant variety of narcissism or self-absorption. Peck describes this condition as follows: Malignant narcissism is characterized by an unsubmitted will. All adults who are mentally healthy submit themselves one way or another to something higher than themselves, be it God or truth or love or some other ideal. They do what God wants them to do rather than what they would desire. . . . They believe in what is true rather than what they would like to be true. (1981, 78) Where this submission does not take place, a malignant narcissism is the result. A narcissistic self-image governs the will of such people and their behaviour is motivated by the need to protect and maintain this self-image at all costs. Evidence that tends to undermine this self-image is suppressed. 

Why a few people succumb to this malignant form of narcissism while most do not is not known. Peck believes that the condition stems from a childhood spent with evil parents. Under such circumstances normal "infantile narcissism will be preserved as a kind of psychological fortress to protect the child against the vicissitudes of its intolerable life..." (Peck l981, 80-81). (This view about the origins of this condition is supported by Harriet A. Goldman: 1988, 420-450). According to Peck, evil behaviour grows out of the efforts (of those who suffer from this form of narcissism) to protect and maintain a particular self-image. They are tenacious in its defence and quite uncaring about the disruptive effects their behaviour might be having on other people. Peck gives examples of such behaviour in several case histories. They are all upsetting stories-not so much for the actual harm done to various innocent bystanders which is not spectacular by concentration camp standards-but because the evildoers are utterly impervious to criticism. They always avoid the evidence that their behaviour is evil by either lying or sliding away from the truth in some less direct fashion. 

In Peck's view this is because the integrity of their self-image is at stake and nothing can be allowed to breach this vital fortress. According to Peck, evil people act upon maxims that they have not consciously acknowledged. The general form of these maxims (developed during childhood) is: "protect your self-image at all costs." A good example of this maxim in action occurs in the following dialogue between Peck and one of his patients: "Everything seems meaningless," Charlene complained to me one day. "What is the meaning of life?" I asked her with seeming innocence. "How should I know?" she replied with obvious irritation. "You're a dedicated religious person," I responded. "Surely your religion must have something to say about the meaning of life." . . . . . . . "We exist for the glory of God," Charlene said in a flat, low monotone, as if she were sullenly repeating an alien catechism, learned by rote and extracted from her at gun point. "The purpose of life is to glorify God." "Well?" I asked. There was a short silence. For a brief moment I thought she might cry. . . "I cannot do it. There's no room for me in that. That would be my death," she said in a quavering voice. Then with a suddenness that frightened me, what seemed to be her choked--back sobs turned into a roar. "I don't want to live for God. I will not. I want to live for me. My own sake!" (1983, 167-8) 

This dialogue raises an interesting objection in connection with my earlier discussion of unconscious principles. There it is was claimed that such unconscious principles will be guiding the person's behaviour 'without the person realizing that it is'. But what would such a person say if she were asked to describe the maxim of her action; and what would count as a correct account? It is unclear what evidence we would use to draw the dividing line between acknowledging the possibility of moral evil as opposed to simply explaining this kind of behaviour away in terms of 'some some of insanity'. The dialogue makes it clear that when a person suffering from this condition is cornered and forced to describe the 'me first' maxim that is guiding her behaviour, she is never (in Peck's experience) willing to discuss its moral status -whether it could pass the test of being universalized-they are not willing to defend their maxim against the moral rebuke: "What would it be like if everyone behaved in this 'me first' fashion?" My point is that the unacknowledged maxim upon which they act as if it were a morally valid principle gives their behaviour the look of evil even though the actor has not actually chosen to make this maxim their principle. Thus Peck's patients did not choose to be evil in the full (Milton's Satan) sense, they never declared: "Evil be thou my good". Instead their malignant narcissism induced a kind of blindness to their own motivation. 

Now it could be said that such a solution to the problem of evil behaviour -namely, to make it turn on "an unrecognized choice"-"sidesteps the matter." And so it does. This flows from the fact that I am in agreement with Kant that it is psychologically incoherent to deliberately act 'on principle' when the principle in question is ununiversalizable and that morally evil behaviour is, therefore, an empty category. But, if Peck is right, the appearance of moral evil-our belief that it exists-can be explained in the way I have suggested in this article. Finally, how (according to Peck) does the need to defend one's self-image in childhood result in evil behaviour when the child reaches adulthood? The question arises because, in adult life, behaviour flowing from this unconscious principle-'protect your self-image at all costs'-would seem to be pointless in what is typically an unthreatening environment. He suggests that where there is no actual threat the person may work to create an environment that will threaten the self-image so that this image may continue to be defended and thus reinforced. In this way innocent people may have to be drawn in (attacked, victimized) in order to create (and maintain) an environment which will justify the continuance of the evil behaviour which supports the self-image. 

This is where the notion of a scapegoat plays its part in evil behaviour. (Peck 1981, 73) Integrating Pecks' Diagnosis with Kant's Analysis of Evil The moral power of the evil maxim (the power which gives evil behaviour its energy and tenacity, and explains the characteristic indifference of the perpetrator to the consequences of her deeds) stems from the fact that the person concerned acts upon this unexamined maxim as if it had the validity of a universalizable principle. Just as a good person will be indifferent to the consequences of sticking to her principles-"Let justice be done though the heavens fall"-so too an evil person seems not to be disturbed by the unfortunate consequences her actions bring about in other persons' lives. 

However, the maxim 'Protect your self image at all costs' (which may involve damaging or being hostile to others) is not a universalizable principle. (If this maxim suddenly became a law of nature, society would be quickly reduced to a war of all against all since it is unlikely that the means I would need to employ to protect my self-image would mesh harmoniously with the similarly motivated activities of the rest of the community) Therefore, if it is to retain its moral power, the maxim cannot be held up for critical examination. It must operate as a principle that is essentially hidden from the person who acts in accordance with it. It is this hidden source of power-lodged in an unconscious principle-that makes evil behaviour seem inexplicable to outsiders and a source of deep spiritual unease for the perpetrator of evil. He must avoid any awareness that the principle driving his behaviour is not universalizable. The lying (to themselves and others) that this inevitably entails is what prompted Peck to call them "the people of the lie". 

Peck characterizes the exceptional mental state of the evil person as follows: We now come to a sort of paradox. I have said that evil people feel themselves to be perfect. At the same time, however, I think they have an unacknowledged sense of their own evil nature. Indeed, it is this very sense from which they are frantically trying to flee. The essential component of evil is not the absence of a sense of sin or imperfection, but the unwillingness to tolerate that sense. At one and the same time, the evil are aware of their evil and desperately trying to avoid that awareness. Rather than blissfully lacking a sense of morality, like the psychopath, they are continually engaged in sweeping the evidence for their evil under the rug of their own consciousness" (Peck 1981, 76). How does Peck's understanding of the source of evil behaviour fit in with Kant's views? According to Kant, evil behaviour is psychologically impossible: no one could act 'on principle' if the principle in question were one that could not be universalized. 

In addition, no one could act 'on principle' unless he consciously acknowledged the principle. This means that if an evil person were to act with the tenacity and drive of a person acting 'on principle', he could not acknowledge the principle that was governing his behaviour. And this proved to be the case with Peck's evil patients when he talked to them about their behaviour: they were quite unable to acknowledge the principle that was governing their behaviour. The unconscious principle 'protect your self-image' which explains the evil person's behaviour deserves to be called a principle even though it is not acknowledged as such. Its origins lie in the development of a defense mechanism that has successfully preserved the person's self-image. As such it has operated (for the person concerned) as a comprehensive and fundamental assumption; a rule of conduct that is structurally related to other rules of conduct, namely, as the pre-eminent rule to which all other maxims must conform. It has proven itself, in practice, as a means of survival for the child and has therefore persisted as a vital element in the evil adult's psychological makeup. 

However, the evil person does not consciously act upon this principle. The principle drives their behaviour quite independently of any conscious desires they may experience or moral principles that they may consider. Indeed, it is this driven quality of their lives that often brings them to the attention of the therapist. Their evil behaviour is as inexplicable to themselves as it is to outsiders. The principle governing it lies hidden and is ruining both their lives and the lives of those around them. The behaviour of the evil person is undoubtedly 'principled' (in the sense of being tenacious and powerful) but it is the hidden character of the principle involved that makes this behaviour seem inexplicable (inhuman) and thus appalling in that special sense that leads us to regard the behaviour as evil.  

Conclusion My intention in this paper has been to show that Peck's diagnosis of evil as a psychiatric condition can be placed in the traditional context of moral psychology by showing how it accords, in many respects, with Kant's denial of the possibility of evil behaviour. The integration runs as follows: 

  1. Kant denies that evil behaviour is a possibility for rational beings; Peck conjectures that evil behaviour stems from an irrational source. 
  2. Kant denies that evil is a moral category; Peck agrees, in that evil people are in the grip of a malignant variety of narcissism and are therefore not morally responsible for their behaviour. Peck remarks in this context The designation of evil as a disease also obligates us to treat evil with compassion. By their very nature the evil inspire in us more of a desire to destroy than to heal, to hate than to pity. While these natural reactions serve to protect the uninitiated, they otherwise prevent any possible solution. I do not think we shall come any closer than we are today to understanding and, I hope, curing evil, until the healing professions name evil as an illness within the domain of their responsibility. (p. 127) 
  3. 3) Kant denies that moral evil is possible and suggests that wickedness (self-indulgence) is what we actually witness in evil behaviour. The material from Parkin's Anthropology of Evil indicates that Kant's attempt to explain moral evil away as mere wickedness would not be generally accepted. I suggested that the explanation for this is that evil behaviour is not monstrous or random or unruly but is actually principled human behaviour except that the principles involved are unconscious principles. Peck provides an explanation of how the development of such unconscious principles (in the form of a defence mechanism) could provide the hidden motivating power for evil behaviour. 
  4. To sum up: my thesis explains the presence of an intuitively unacceptable anomaly in Kant, viz., his view that there is no such thing as evil behaviour, there is only wickedness. At the same time it shows, via the notion of an unconscious principle, how a disease (malignant narcissism) could bear a moral interpretation. 

Thus if the disease took the form of an unconscious allegiance to an unjustifiable principle then the behaviour would come to have a moral aspect. This follows from the fact that morality, in Kant's view, essentially involves principled behaviour. Now Kant was not in possession of the idea of the unconscious. 

Therefore the idea of evil behaviour arising from willing in accordance with an unconscious principle was not available to him. (As a consequence he had to simply reject as unintelligible the very possibility of evil behaviour in terms of his moral psychology.) For his part, Peck did not note the fact that moral behaviour essentially involves principles. Therefore he was unable to see that it is because evil behaviour does stem from (unconscious) principles (serving as defense mechanisms) that such behaviour has traditionally been regarded as a species of moral behaviour, though an inexplicable one. (This traditional acceptance of evil as a puzzling moral concept is evident in the quotations from Parkin.) My object has been to show how these two points of view illuminate and complement each other. Given their quite independent origins it is significant that they chime together so well.

 In my account, there is a near-perfect dovetailing of the two different psychological perspectives-that of Kant's moral psychology (which lacks the resources to accommodate the possibility of evil) and that of Peck's psychiatric diagnosis of evil that explains (on my construal) how an unconscious adherence to unacknowledged principles could be the driving power behind evil behaviour. I have argued that this link serves to explain some of the problems traditionally associated with understanding evil behaviour. That these two very different views fit together so neatly is, perhaps, as an indication that the understanding of evil behaviour that they jointly provide may be close to the truth of the matter.


 Further information on malignant narcissism. When Peck's book was published (1983) the available literature contained relatively few references to malignant narcissism. At that time most of the references to this condition stemmed from Otto Kernberg's use of the term in his Severe Personality Disorders: Psychotherapeutic Strategies (1986, New Haven, Yale University Press) published three years after Peck's book. 

Peck himself speaks of malignant narcissism as a category of personality disorders which he is retrieving from the relative obscurity of Martin Buber's Good and Evil (1952), a source somewhat distant from DSM IV. Since writing this article I have learned of a website devoted to malignant narcissism run by Sam Vaknin, Ph.D. 

I include here his instructions for accessing his site: (The main Gate to all my sites - download more that 5 Mb of material about Pathological Narcissism, NPD and Personality Disorders ) (67 Frequently Asked Questions regarding Pathological Narcissism, NPD and Personality Disorders - upon accessing the page, please scroll down to review a complete list) (A psychodynamic study of Narcissism, using a new vocabulary - a bit difficult if you haven't gone through the FAQs first) 

(The introduction to the print edition of "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited") (The Narcissism Discussion List page) (Excerpts from the Archives of the Narcissism List) 


 Buber, M. 1952. Images of Good and Evil. London: Routledge and Kegan 

Paul. Goldman, Harriet A. 1988. Paradise Destroyed: The Crime of Being Born: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Experience of Evil. Contemporary Psychoanalysis 24: 420-450. 

Kant, I. 1960. Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. Trans. T.M. Green and H.H. Hudson. New York: Harper Brothers.

 Parkin, D., ed. 1985. The Anthropology of Evil. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 

Paton, H.J. 1948. The Moral Law: Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. London: Hutchinson University Library. 

Peck, M. S. 1983. People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. New York: Simon and Schuster. 

Kant, I. 1956, Critique of Practical Reason. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing. Explaining Evil Behaviour 1