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The Other Problem of Evil


The traditional problem of evil is the problem of how a benevolent God could permit evil to be a part of creation. The other problem of evil is to explain how people can be evil. But why is this 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. 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). Instead the evil behaviour can be regarded as simply the natural effect of madness. In this way the morally evil aspect of the behaviour is explained by denying its existence. 

The problem with this explanation is that it denies what seems to be evident: namely that the term "evil" has moral connotations: the evil person is regarded as evil because he or she acted deliberately and could have done otherwise. When this is accepted 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 know 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 A clue to the solution of this problem can be found by considering 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. 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 decide to act on principle regardless of their inclinations. This is a distinction with which we are all familiar: it marks the difference between natural goodness and moral goodness. 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.") 

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. These parallel passages 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 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. By contrast, the psychology behind the opposite kind of 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 to do such a thing." 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 perhaps incoherent, but why exactly?

 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. He 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 woollens. However, it is clear that hypothetical principles like "always dress in woollens" 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 which a rational person would follow if he or she wanted to satisfy a certain desire. By comparison, categorical principles do not depend on pre-existing desires. 

Categorical principles are principles which 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. 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? 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-known that everyone would always lie when in difficulties, no one would ever believe what anyone else said to them. 

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 permissible--if it can be universalized. 

What Gives a Right Principle the Power to Motivate Us? 

The power lies in 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 when put into practice. Therefore we know that we will be able to act on such principles if we choose to adopt them. By contrast, as rational agents, we cannot act on a principle which is self- defeating because we understand that it cannot 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 as rational agents. 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--in the sense of being able to understand how evil behaviour could be motivated by the rational consideration of principles (as good behaviour can be). 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. (This 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 he or 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 a disposition to be wicked, prudent or saintly.) 

The Common Sense Opposition to Kant's Assessment 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 as being good is better than being nice. Moreover, we think that there are evil people and that evil behaviour actually exists. Michael Stone's remarks on this topic are in line with this. With reference to Kant's view that there is no evil only wickedness, he writes1: . . . Evil certainly exists. To deny it, or weasel out of recognizing it by invoking concepts like 'wickedness' strike me as casuistical and soft. 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 insane or regarded as 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 a 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) The complex of the representations of disinterested malice expresses a paradox, a belief in creatures who 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 to engage in such behaviour 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. On the other hand, 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 a "private" principle. 

Private 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 which drives good behaviour stems in part from an appreciation of the universalizability of the principle that inspires it. We find we respect such principles insofar as we recognize them as governing modes of behaviour which are possible for everyone. 

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 as a moral incentive. 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 a private (or unconscious) principle. It must be a maxim which has gained the power of a principle without being openly acknowledged or tested as a principle. It will be a principle which is guiding the person's behaviour without that person's realizing that it is. 

If we could make sense of this idea of behaviour governed by a private principle we could then explain how an evil person may act in accordance with a principle (albeit a private i.e., unacknowledged principle: one which has not been held up for examination to see if it is universalizable). Furthermore, it would explain why evil behaviour typically displays all the energy and tenacity which normal principled behaviour--morally good behaviour--exhibits. The idea that evil behaviour involves acting in accordance with a principle (though unacknowledged) would also fit in well with 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. In order to further explain this idea of a private principle 

I now turn to M. Scott Peck's book People of the Lie (1981). 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 various 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 rather special kind of moral behaviour could be adequately diagnosed. 

He found it 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 is supported by Harriet A. Goldman 1988, 420-450. On this subject Stone remarks: Peck's belief that malignant narcissism stems from living with evil parents is true only sometimes. There are other persons who become evil because of inborn factors predisposing them to take what they want when they want it and to do so with no regard for others. They can turn out to be evil, even though reared by caring and affectionate parents. There are examples of such in the annals of crime. The most convincing examples are those involving adoptees raised by loving adoptive parents, yet where the child turns out 'bad' as in the case of the serial murderers David Berkovitz ("son of Sam") or Ken Bianchi (one of the Hillside Stranglers in Los Angeles)) 

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 which 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) 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 private principle--"protect your self-image at all costs"--would seem to be pointless in what is typically an unthreatening environment. But where there is no actual threat the person may work to create an environment which 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 (which gives evil behaviour its energy and tenacity, and explains the characteristic indifference of the perpetrator to the consequences of his or 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. (And just as a good person will be indifferent to the consequences of sticking to their principles-- "Let justice be done though the heavens fall"--so too an evil person seems not to be disturbed by the unfortunate consequences his or 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. (Thus 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 which is essentially hidden from the person who acts in accordance with it. It is this hidden source of power--lodged in a private principle--that makes evil behaviour seem inexplicable to outsiders and a source of deep spiritual unease for the perpetrator of evil. He or she must avoid any awareness that the principle driving their 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 then 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 which could not be universalized. In addition, no one could act "on principle" unless he or she 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 or she could not acknowledge the principle that was governing his or her 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 which was governing their behaviour. 

The private 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 which 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. 

The recent literature contains relatively few references to malignant narcissism.2 Indeed nearly all of the recent references to this condition stem from Otto Kernberg's use of the term in his Severe Personality Disorders: Psychotherapeutic Strategies published a year 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 III-R. 

For a philosopher dipping into the psychiatric literature, it is fascinating to note the tremendous amount of time and energy spent on the part of professionals within the field to hammer out a standard taxonomy of mental disorders. Clearly the sheer complexity of the continuum along which 'abnormal behaviour' stretches necessitates a constant tinkering with labels in order to pin down the enemy, so to speak. In l989 (in "The Narcissistic Personality Disorder and the Differential Diagnosis of Antisocial Behavior") Kernberg offers his own taxonomy of the continuum which stretches from the narcissistic personality disorders to the antisocial personality disorder. He distinguishes seven positions on the continuum and labels one of them malignant narcissism. Needless to say, a symptom of the general taxonomic difficulties that beset psychiatry is that the bits and pieces that constitute Peck's notion of malignant narcissism are scattered here and there along the whole continuum which Kernberg characterizes and do not fall exclusively into the 'malignant narcissism' subdivision. 

Thus, from the point of view of my discussion of Peck and Kant, the taxonomic discrepancies are a source of confusion. However, the taxonomic problems besetting the discipline do explain why Peck and Stone can fundamentally disagree about who typically falls into the category of the malignant narcissist while at the same time agreeing about the connection between this syndrome and the notion of evil behaviour. Thus, although Stone is well aware of the non-moral characterization of malignant narcissism that stems from DSM3 he does not want to ignore the malignant aspect of this syndrome. He writes: "[the term 'malignant narcissism'] . . . includes the connotation of evil that necessarily overhangs this domain of personality disorder." (1989, 649). 

However, Stone then immediately goes on to say that most of the murderers he is characterizing as malignant narcissists "were psychopaths by Cleckley's criteria (insincere, shameless, egocentric, unable to learn from experience, without insight, empathy or compassion, although often superficially charming)." (1989, 649-650). I presume that his intention here (in characterizing the malignant narcissists who murder as psychopaths) is to indicate why he thinks that malignant narcissists should be thought of as evil: it is their psychopathic behaviour that marks them as evil people. In addition, he points out that psychopaths "though they remain within the scope of descriptive psychiatry, are beyond the scope of psychotherapy in its present state of development." (1989, 650) 

I conclude that, for Stone, it is because psychopaths are presently untreatable that malignant narcissists (evil people) are beyond the scope of psychotherapy. (This conclusion is corroborated by some remarks that Stone made in his letter to me which I quote below.) Now, by contrast, Peck specifically rules out psychopaths from those people he characterizes as malignant narcissists. He does so on the grounds that psychopaths lack any sense of morality whereas an uneasy conscience (unacknowledged but nevertheless present as a unidentifiable source of unease for the evil person) is definitely characteristic of the malignant narcissist as Peck uses this term. Clearly Peck thinks that such people would not be beyond the scope of psychotherapy. This is because they--unlike the psychopaths--at least have a moral sense (though one which they find difficult to acknowledge) that might be brought into play in the course of therapy. 

It is interesting that Peck and Stone should see some sort of moral capacity (presumably insight and a sense of shame ) as a sine qua non of redemption via therapy. In line with his characterization of malignant narcissists as psychopaths, Stone thinks that the very idea of treating evil as a disease a la Peck is wrong- headed. He writes: Even more worrisome to me is Peck's admonition that we treat evil with compassion as though it were a 'disease'. He acknowledges that we are tempted to 'destroy' rather than pity the evil-doer--which would foreclose the possibility of finding a 'solution' [to the problem of curing evil people]. 

To my way of thinking, there are people who commit grotesque, violent, destructive acts with absolute abandon and lack of all compassion and who behave evilly in such a way as to place them quite far beyond the pity of any sensible person, and certainly quite far beyond the realm of treatment . . . In fact to bestow pity on such people (such as Ian Brady and Myra Hindley--the "Moors" murderers) encourages the psychopathic section of the community because it shows them that the law- abiding majority (i.e., the "dupes and suckers" as they would view us) are soft, and just waiting to be taken advantage of and--once harmed or swindled--will bend over backwards to "understand" (in psychiatric terms, for example) and excuse and pity. Clearly it is psychopaths that are beyond the realm of treatment and Peck's (hopeful) attitude towards his evil patients was based on the view that they were not psychopaths. Peck and Stone are then, in agreement concerning the impossibility of treating psychopaths as things now stand. 


 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) 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 private and unconscious principles. Peck provides an explanation of how the unacknowledged development of such private principles (in the form of a defence mechanism) could provide the hidden motivating power for evil behaviour. To sum up: my thesis explains 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 a private principle, how a "disease" (malignant narcissism) could have a moral bearing. 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--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 a private (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 (private) 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. I regard this fact as an indication that the understanding of evil behaviour which they jointly provide may be close to the truth of the matter. However, Stone would argue that this whole approach to the subject with its emphasis on moral psychology needs to be broadened in the following way. In his letter he sums up in this way: More importantly, one cannot begin to deal with the issue adequately, it seems to me, unless one reaches across to other fields of endeavor--most importantly, ethnology, and psychiatry. 

Human beings are social animals, utterly dependent upon the group for the survival of its members. What we call "moral" (and conversely, what we designate "evil")--though these are abstract, rather airy concepts--can better be understood as the expressions of the behavior patterns that permit us optimally to fit in with the group (and to succeed in reproducing, thus passing our genes into the next generation) or ... that violate the survival-requirements of the group, and thus ultimately fail to be reproductively adaptive. James Q. Wilson in his recent book ... The Moral Sense (New York: Free Press, 1993) mentions four important categories of group- friendly, adaptive, survival and gene-spread enhancing realms of behavior; namely, sympathy, duty, self-control and fairness. Robert Wright, in his even more recent book, The Moral Animal (New York: Pantheon, 1994) emphasizes the Darwinian/evolutionary aspects of what we call our moral sense (and by its opposite, our sense of what is evil). Certain otherwise hard-to-explain "altruistic" behaviors, for example, can be better understood in this way. 

A brother might sacrifice himself in order to save three of his brothers (since each bears one half of his genome) he is therefore willing to give up his 2 halves in order to insure the preservation of 3 halves. Men on the Titanic tended to save the women and children first--since this ensured the survival of the men's genes (children survive best if with their mothers) into the next generation, etc., etc. When the 700 people (4/5 of whom were petty criminals) landed at Botany Bay in 1788, a man who stole a chicken (an evil act considering the survival needs of the endangered group, who had little food) was hanged summarily. Consequently, his genes did not spread into the next generation. Those with less evil, better moral behavior patterns survived and did spread their (less impulsive, less un-compassionate) genes into the next generation. 

One has to realize, from genetics and psychiatry--that about half of personality is inherited. This means that there are very strong genetic components to compassion (and these are, in all likelihood, woefully lacking in the true psychopath) and to the imperiousness or moderateness of one's drive-strengths. These differences have an impact upon the strength of the tendency to indulge in or scrupulously to avoid committing evil acts. People with the most favorable genes vis-a-vis developing a moral sense, who are raised in the most moral families, and who rise to the highest level of moral development (i.e., where they could not bring themselves to do wrong even if no one were looking and they could get away with it) are comparatively uncommon. But these are the ones who, even in Nazi Germany, were willing to die rather than to commit atrocities against the various targets of Nazi evil (as was the case with a famous Lutheran clergyman whom the Nazis eventually executed: Dietrich Bonhoeffer). 

Michael Stone's psychiatric perspective on malignant narcissism (associated with Kernberg's work) challenges the importance of the link which I forged between Kant and Peck. 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 Peck's psychiatric diagnosis of evil which explains (suitably construed) how an unconscious adherence to unacknowledged principles could be the driving power behind evil behaviour. I argued that this link serves to explain some of the problems traditionally associated with understanding evil behaviour. Stone would perhaps be inclined to the view that the subtleties involved in integrating the concepts central to these two ways of understanding moral psychology are unnecessary. He would take this view because--following Wilson and Wright--he would say that our moral behaviour (whether positive or negative in character) is, at bottom, a function of genetic inheritance. 

He qualifies this view by saying that genetic predispositions account for only fifty percent of our personality ("One has to realize, from genetics and psychiatry--that about half of personality is inherited.") but the tenor of his remarks quoted above (relating to Wilson and Wright) makes it clear that he is inclined to the view that the genetic basis of personality is what really turns the wheels when it comes to the exercise of human agency. This naturalistic approach takes the view that explanations of human behaviour which depend on traditional moral psychologies are superfluous in the light of a physical (genetic) explanation of behaviour. This difference in approach exemplifies the current state of the longstanding debate on the correct way to understand human behaviour and with it, evil. 


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

Paul. Cassin, A. 1990. 'Orientarsi nella patologia borderline. Psichiatria Generale e dell' Etat Evolutiva 28 no. 2:141-164. 

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. 

Kernberg, O. F. 1986. Severe Personality Disorders: Psychotherapeutic Strategies. New Haven: Yale University Press. 

Kernberg, O. F. l989. The narcissistic personality disorder and the differential diagnosis of antisocial behavior. Psychiatric Clinics of North America 12, no. 3:553-570. 

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. 

Post, J. M. 1991. Saddam Hussein of Iraq: A political psychology profile. Political Psychology 12, no. 2:279-289. 

Post, J. M. l993. Current concepts of the narcissistic personality: Implications for political philosophy. Political Psychology 14, no. 1:99-121. 

Stone, M. H. 1989. Murder. Psychiatric Clinics of North America 12, no. 3:643- 651. 

Wilson, J. Q. 1993. The Moral Sense. New York: Free Press. 

Wright, R. 1994. The Moral Animal. New York: Pantheon. 

1 Dr. Michael H. Stone (Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University) was kind enough to write me a long letter in response to a draft of this article. I have used extracts from it to serve as a running commentary from the point of view of someone who has recently written on some of the more notorious modern perpetrators of evil, serial killers: see 'Murder', Stone, Michael H., Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 1989 Sep Vol 12(3) 643-651 

2 The following articles and books were those containing the key words 'malignant narcissism' in the CD ROM Silver Platter 3.11 Psychological Abstracts (January 87- March 94): Otto F Kernberg's Severe Personality Disorders: Psychotherapeutic Strategies (1986), and 'The narcissistic personality disorder and the differential diagnosis of antisocial behavior' (1989); Michael H. Stone's 'Murder' (1989); A. Cassin's 'Orientarsi nella patologia borderline' (1990); Jerrold M. Post's 'Saddam Hussein of Iraq: A political psychology profile' (1991), and 'Current concepts of the narcissistic personality: Implications for political philosophy' (1993). 

3 (Thus he remarks) "it [malignant narcissism] may be seen reductionistically [i.e., in accordance with the norms of the DSM] as merely the conjunction of "NPD X ASP " . . . [viz; "narcissistic personality disorder X Anti-social personality]). p.649