Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sympathy for the Devil: The Problem with Calling People “Evil” Even if They Engage in Heinous Crimes

A primary aim of this blog wil be to explore, and hopefully explain in accessible terms, why some people engage in extreme antisocial behavior ranging from individual crimes like sexual homicide and murder suicide, to collective crimes like terrorism and genocide, strictly using current scientific findings, rather than moralistic or religious terms.  

This approach is a reaction to proposals by some mental health practitioners and theoreticians (e.g., Michael H. Stone M.D) who have proposed that certain acts are so heinous that persons who commit them can only be described as “Evil”. This type of language and imagery has captured significant popular media attention (from programs in the Discovery Channel starring Dr. Stone, to NPR, and the NYTimes).

While Dr. Stone’s books and shows do cite scientific terminology and neurobiology findings about antisocial behavior, the practice of describing heinous acts and persons who commit them as “Evil” or “Monsters” may do more harm than good.  These terms frame people and their actions in mythological terms that elicit fear or morbid curiosity (as evidenced by the popularity of the shows), or in the worst cases, the desire among misguided vigilantes to “get rid” of the “evil” people (a particularly sobering prospect given the high rates of wrongful conviction and growing numbers of persons exhonerated while in death row). 

While calling some criminals "Evil" may also sell books or boost ratings, it does not lead us to view people who engage in these behaviors as complex individuals with problems that can be solved. Instead, it appeals to an instinct that wants to ogle and perhaps eliminate, but certainly not understand, and much less help, offenders. Ironically, it could be said that it brings out the “inner monster” out of the agog spectator. Characterizing people who engage in heinous crimes as “monsters” or “evil” may satisfy an inner sense of justice or even self-superiority but it does not lead to long-term answers, and that is highly problematic for our society.

Another problem of characterizing people as “evil” is that it ignores a hard truth: Throughout history there have been many people who have been kind, caring, responsible, even heroic, who also engaged in acts that evoke revulsion. A brief look at history finds currently revered figures who also engaged in what we would consider crimes against humanity. One of my favorite examples is Andrew Jackson, whose role in the Battle of New Orleans during the war of 1812 propelled him into the presidency of the U.S. His more colorful exploits include surviving being shot during a duel and killing his opponent, and opening the White House to the public for his inauguration which increased his popularity but also probably trashed the White House. On a much darker front, his frontiersman ethos was tinged with virulent anti-Native American sentiment and he was instrumental in crafting and enacting policy which led to the forcible expulsion of thousands of Native Americans from ancestral lands and their eventual death. He was also an ardent proponent of slavery and he personally owned hundreds of slaves. On the other hand, he also adopted two Native American orphans and grieved heavily the death of his wife.

Was Andrew Jackson "Evil" or a "Monster"?  Not surprisingly, some would argue as much, while others would not. I would argue that his actions were driven by multiple complex factors including his own upbringing as an orphan and child soldier, as well as the period in history in which he lived. With the benefit of more than 150 years of hindsight, this may appear as a non-controversial, self-evident point. However, I would further argue that we must employ the same multifactorial,complex view of persons who because of their crimes are currently qualified as “Evil.”  Understandably, conceptualizing persons who have committed sexual homicide as complex, and worthy of careful, non-judgmental analysis is far more difficult than doing it for the 7th president of the United States. Nonetheless,in future entries, I hope to continue to explain why it is important for all of us to do so.


  1. I would say that I 99% agree with this. The majority of people who commit crime, even heinous ones, are pretty good people who make terrible, terrible decisions. There is a very small percentage, however, that I would classify as evil. I'm not sure that I can provide a definitive answer for how can we spot these people other than you'll know when you meet them. There is a visceral, instant gut/fear response. In my time working with offenders and collecting data from them, I can only identify one.

  2. Thanks for the comment! So my next post deals exactly with the issue you talk about. I admit that there are some people for whom the "evil" label "fits." Then I address how I have reconciled what I know/think versus what I feel for those cases. Should be done in a couple of days, look forward to see what you think!