Monday, February 07, 2005

The problem of evil 

I know I've been harping on the problem of evil (back), and it isn't a popular meme; but it's real and important. Anyone who wants to think seriously about Abu Ghraib has to take the possibility and nature of evil into account.

As good liberals, we want to believe in human perfectibility; sometimes, I think, because we want so much to make things right, we believe that anything can be made right. But I'm afraid human nature, as revealed through history, is against us (the Holocaust; Pol Pot; the Irish potato famine, "Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees"). That's our problem of evil: we want to believe that evil is not real.

But conservatives—or should I say "conservatives"—believe so strongly that they are good, that they fall into the trap of believing that only others can be evil ("evil doers"). In fact, Christianity teaches that evil is an inherent part of the human condition; all of us are capable of; this is called original sin. That is the conservative's problem of evil: They want to believe that evil is only real in others (compare Winger Projection Syndrome.)

Interestingly, the problem of evil is now going mainstream. From The Times:

Western religious leaders, evolutionary theorists and psychological researchers agree that almost all human beings have the capacity to commit brutal acts, even when they are not directly threatened. In Dr. Stanley Milgram's famous electroshock experiments in the 1960's, participants delivered what they thought were punishing electric jolts to a fellow citizen, merely because they were encouraged to do so by an authority figure as part of a learning experiment.

In the real world, the grim images coming out of Iraq -the beheadings by Iraqi insurgents and the Abu Ghraib tortures, complete with preening guards - suggest how much further people can go when they feel justified.

Dr. Angela Hegarty, director of psychiatry at Creedmoor who works with Dr. Stone, said she was skeptical of using the concept of evil but realized that in her work she found herself thinking and talking about it all the time. In 11 years as a forensic examiner, in this country and in Europe, she said, she counts four violent criminals who were so vicious, sadistic and selfish that no other word could describe them.

One was a man who gruesomely murdered his own wife and young children and who showed more annoyance than remorse, more self-pity than concern for anyone else affected by the murders. On one occasion when Dr. Hegarty saw him, he was extremely upset - beside himself - because a staff attendant at the facility where he lived was late in arriving with a video, delaying the start of the movie. The man became abusive, she said: he insisted on punctuality.


Of course, evil is a spiritual category, not to be confused with psychological categories like psychopathology or sociopathology. And it's dangerous to think about or study evil too much; it's like a toxic material that can't be handled without endangering the mind or the spirit.

That said:

Researchers have found that some people who commit violent crimes are much more likely than others to kill or maim again, and one way they measure this potential is with a structured examination called the psychopathy checklist.

As part of an extensive, in-depth interview, a trained examiner rates the offender on a 20-item personality test. The items include glibness and superficial charm,, grandiose self-worth, pathological lying, proneness to boredom and emotional vacuity.

Broken homes and childhood trauma are common among brutal killers; so is malignant narcissism, a personality type characterized not only by grandiosity but by fantasies of unlimited power and success, a deep sense of entitlement, and a need for excessive admiration.

It really is not a coincidence that the boy who blew up frogs with firecrakers is the man who mocks those he has the power to execute and the man who authorizes policies of torture.


corrente SBL - New Location
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