Is evil a sickness and, if so, can it be cured? This existential question was grappled with by psychiatrist Dr. M. Scott Peck in his 1983 book, "People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil." In it, Peck catalogues his experiences with patients whose symptoms defied any therapies he offered. His conclusion was that they and others among us are simply evil and worthy of a designation in his profession's bible, the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," edited by the American Psychiatric Association.
Peck, though an avowed Christian, preferred to see evil people as suffering from a personality disorder rather than from sin or some moral cancer on the soul. He asserted that the malady of evil was distinguished by some common characteristics he noted among his patients.
The first was their denial of all personal responsibility. Evil individuals programatically indulge in scapegoating, blaming personal problems or the problems of society on someone else or another class of people. That's because the evil parties consider themselves above reproach and must deny their own badness. By lashing out against others and saying they see evil in them, they are able to transfer their guilt. Evil people are also unable to assume the viewpoint of their victims, and so they lack empathy for the hurt they have caused with their cruel words and deeds.
Peck next maintained that image and appearance were "crucial to understanding the morality of the evil." While there is no innate motivation for the evil-doer to be good, it is important to appear good and respectable, even though this is simply pretense. That's why Peck called them the "people of the lie." They live lives of self-deception, papering over any faults that others might criticize. They are aware that the consequence of their incessant lies and deception is to deceive others.
Evil individuals are also extraordinarily willful in their attempt to control people around them while not submitting their own will to anyone else, not even God. They thus suffer from what Erich Fromm, the German social psychologist and psychoanalyst, termed "malignant narcissism." This exaggerated pride deceives them into thinking they are smarter than they are and above any authority. The Austrian philosopher Martin Buber described such people as insisting upon "affirmation independent of all findings," as living in a fact-free world about their own character. They thus become intolerant to criticism of any kind.
People suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder sometimes will exhibit mild schizophrenic tendencies. In their speech, they will go off "into left field," lose their composure and the thread of their thoughts, and show disorganized thinking. This is prone to happen in times of stress.
At the heart of the psychology of evil is the person's inability "to tolerate the pain of introspection." This entails admitting to yourself that you have faults and have committed evil deeds. That's why it is so important for those who are evil to always act morally superior and transfer the focus of evil to others, especially their detractors.
Many of those termed truly evil are beyond therapy and redemption. Just consider the top 10 villains of the world in the 20th century. But all hope is not lost for those living today. In his 1978 book, "The Road Less Traveled," Peck wrote of the importance of discipline to order a disorderly life. The steps he outlined include learning to delay gratification in the present for future gains; accepting responsibility for one's own decisions and avoiding scapegoating; being honest in word and deed; and being able to balance conflicting thoughts, opinions and requirements, and then prioritizing them.
The honesty part of this therapeutic approach requires one to process new information to modify and update your worldview. This means having to deal with discordant facts that might diminish the image you have of yourself or the myths you have constructed about your superiority. Peck insists that this requires a life of genuine self-examination and a willingness to be challenged by others whose views may differ from your own.
There are more than a few evil people afoot in the world today, and their activities carry a whole range of threats for the rest of us. Peck summed up that situation nicely when he wrote in "The Road Less Traveled," "It is said 'neurotics make themselves miserable; those with character disorders make everyone else miserable.'"
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Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears Fridays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.